“She went and got in the car with them, and they blindfolded her. And they took her away…”
There are some films – quietly devastating, profoundly beautiful – that stay with you long after the credits have rolled: The Rape of Recy Taylor is just one such film.
Nancy Buirski’s documentary, which feels strikingly timely in the wake of the #MeToo movement, opens on a slow-motion shot of a young black woman, dressed in a long white dress, running down a long country road. And yet… while it has clearly been taken from archive footage, there is nothing within the shot that roots it in time: the season is fascinatingly indeterminate, the decade uncertain. It’s a clever decision, one which keeps you feeling off-kilter and unbalanced, and far more susceptible to the emotions being experienced by the anonymous figure in front of you.
Because, yes, the expression on her face might be hidden by shadow, but her terror is palpable. Once, twice, she looks backwards over her shoulder, staggers, stumbles forwards. as she attempts to flee the danger that’s lurking out of shot. And all the while, Fannie Lou Hamer’s haunting performance of Run Mourner, Run plays in the background.
“There’s praying here, there’s praying there. I believe down in my soul, there’s praying everywhere,” she sings. “I know the other world is not like this.”
The lyrics slowly take on an entire new meaning as you learn more about the subject of Buirski’s documentary, for her film tells the heart-breaking true story of 24-year old black mother and sharecropper Recy Taylor, who was gang raped on her way home from church by six white men in Alabama in 1944.
Taylor’s brother, Robert Corbitt, who has spent much of his life fighting to have his sister’s story told, appears in the film to explain exactly what happened to her that night.
“It was still hot in Alabama that September,” he says. “[Recy and her friends] were walking at night and, at that time, the streets were very poorly lit. There were mad foxes, rabid foxes… [but] it was very unusual for anybody to get attacked by somebody else here in Abbeville.”
Corbitt goes on to reveal that the same teenagers who targeted his sister that night had “circled the church a couple of times” with their guns, searching for a victim. Earlier that evening, they had even attempted to attack two other girls, but had been chased away.
Then they encountered Recy.
“Recy decided to run right away as soon as she saw the gun,” adds Corbitt, adding that his sister didn’t get far because she came up against a “tall fence”.
“If she could have got past that fence, she could have got into the woods,” he says. “But she couldn’t.”
Corbitt’s tone is starkly matter-of-fact – as is that of his sister, Alma, who joins him on screen to give a voice to the voiceless (in this case the “staggering” number of black women raped by white men throughout US history). Together, they recall how the local sheriff was alerted to Taylor’s disappearance right away, but that he “wasn’t really looking for her”. How their father spent hours wandering up and down the length of their street, barefoot, as he waited for news. How the two of them assumed, without question, that their sister would be killed.
It is their frankness, the ordinariness of their tone, which truly hammers home the horror of the situation: for black people all over America, this was just ‘one of those things’ that happened to them.
“It is this sort of rite of passage where young southern white boys hunted for a young black girl,” Crystal Feimster, a Yale University associate professor of African American studies and history, explains in the film.
“Their behaviour was that black women would be happy to sleep with a white man. I guess what I often think is that they didn’t see her. That she was an idea of what black women are, that they’re all prostitutes and that they had a right to her body.”
As a cacophonic chorus of crickets sings in the background, the documentary goes on to confirm the shattering truth: that Taylor was forced into the car and blindfolded. That she was driven to a desolate spot, where she was forced to lie on the ground. That those teenagers raped her, mutilated her to the extent that she could never conceive another child, and dumped her, naked, by the side of a road.
Yet, somehow, Taylor survived the brutal assault and found her way home. And, once she had been reunited with her family, she revealed that she was far from a broken woman.
“Recy had promised these guys down there that if they didn’t kill her, and let her get home to her child, she wouldn’t tell anybody,” says Corbitt. “But as soon as she got back, she told everything that she could tell.
Taylor refused to stay silent, reporting the rape to the police and publicly identifying the six assailants: Hugo Wilson, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, Dillard York, Billy Howerton and Robert Gamble. Just one of the men, Wilson, was fined $250: not a single one was arrested.
When the town’s justice system failed to give a fair hearing, Taylor’s story was reported to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who sent their chief rape investigator, a civil rights activist who specialised in crimes against women.
This woman’s name was Rosa Parks.
Using newsreel footage, home videos, “race films” (movies made for black audiences which often covered cases that the white police would not touch) and archive photographs, Buirski’s film draws on the various modes of expression and protest that the Taylor case brought into focus.
Through these mediums, we learn that Parks rallied support for Taylor, triggering an unprecedented outcry for justice. But, while their courage led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the era-defining civil rights movements that followed (think #MeToo, #TimesUp and #SheSpokeUp), Taylor herself was left behind.
Even under pressure, and despite the men’s confessions to authorities, two grand juries declined to indict the men; no charges were ever brought against her assailants. Indeed, as the documentary reveals, many went on to be recognised as war heroes in Korea and Vietnam.
Now, though, her story will finally be shared in a completely different world – one in which we are all too aware of the fact that men take advantage of women every day, in every walk of life, and are rarely brought to justice.
“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”
The Rape of Recy Taylor will be available to view in selected UK cinemas from the 25 May.