In the 21st century, rape victims, citing fear and shame, report as few as 16 percent of sexual assaults. Imagine, then, the plight of black rape victims in the Jim Crow South, whose attackers were usually white. Yet in 1944, Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, told her father, her husband and the Abbeville, Alabama, sheriff about a brutal attack by six young white assailants on her way home from church one evening. In her documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, Nancy Buirski employs clips of African-American–produced “race films,” photographs Alabama’s rural landscape and mixes Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” to evoke the physical and cultural monstrosities Taylor was up against.
With Taylor herself now too frail to speak much, Buirski relies on her brother and sister to tell her story and on scholars for context. Taylor’s outspokenness then was a courageous anomaly, her case taken up by none other than Rosa Parks after Abbeville failed to indict the attackers, years before Parks’ famous act of refusal led to the Montgomery bus boycott.
The film is a haunting, damning unpacking of history that also reminds us how little progress we’ve made. “How could they have brutalized her in this way?” says Yale professor Crystal Feimster. “As a scholar I can see all the pieces, how white supremacy works, how sexism works and patriarchy. But at the end of the day you think, these are six boys and a woman. Where is the humanity?”