The Rape of Recy Taylor
USA 2017 91 minutes
These matter-of-fact words introduce a 90-minute long documentary about the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper. “It is an unspeakable crime”, says one of the scholars in the film in order to illustrate the heroism of Recy Taylor, who spoke about it from the start, never hesitating for a moment, despite the threats and brutal retributions. But this also shows the heavy task faced by those making the film: how to talk about rape, how to visualize it?
«The numbers of black women raped by white men in our country’s past is staggering. Afraid for their lives, just a courageous few spoke up.
Only in the black press and in “race films”–films made by mostly black filmmakers with black casts for black audiences–would one learn of such brutal crimes.
We use “race films” along with vintage footage and home movies to tell Recy Taylor’s story.»
As we have learned through the #MeToo movement, rape victims’ testimonies have remained subject to doubts and skepticism to the present day. The huge attention by social and mainstream media given to Black Panther, the newest blockbuster movie from the Marvel Franchise, directed by a black man and with a predominantly black cast, indicates another difficulty in making this film: black people are only at present gaining public visibility. As one of the articles about Black Panther bluntly explained, “If you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often…(while) those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multi-faceted.”
The silence and invisibility The Rape of Recy Taylor had to break were extraordinary, resulting from the gravity of the crime and from the person subjected to it. The filmmakers confronted this straightforwardly, creating a powerful discourse against sexism and racism. They mostly used materials that were already available and accommodated the visual means of expression to the development and requirement of the film’s narration. Choosing minimalist solutions, they produced optimum effects.
«Recy Taylor identified her rapists, though few women spoke up in fear for their lives.»
At the very beginning, her brother Robert Corbitt and her sister Alma Daniels explain what happened to Recy Taylor the night she was raped. We only see them talking, their voices accompanied by shots of (most probably local) landscapes. And these unorganized, poorly lit views of compounds, woods, and lawns gradually fill up with immense sadness. As their recollections evolve, we hear about their father guarding the house with a double-barreled shotgun day and night ever since, and hear the historians say that the rape of a black woman by a white man was not unusual because black people were not regarded as humans.
We see old photos and race film clips with white men chasing black women, and the sadness turns into despair. The perpetrators told Recy to keep quiet, but she told everybody about what happened. They burned the porch of her home, but they did not silence her.
We see an old photo of Deputy Sheriff Lewey Corbitt, holding a stained white cloth in his hands. Recy’s family got Corbitt’s name from Lewey Corbitt’s family after the abolition of slavery, meaning the deputy sheriff’s family owned their ancestors. “Don’t say anything…don’t say a world…don’t talk about it to anybody,” Roger Corbitt remembers the deputy sheriff telling them, “and anytime he said that we talked as much as we could.” And we see the despair turn into rebellion.
«The film is a eulogy to the power of the media and a denunciation of the sexism and racism of the mainstream media.»
Recy Taylor identified her rapists, though few women spoke up in fear for their lives. In fact, the rape of black women by white men was so common at that time in the US South that The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the key civil rights organization in the United States to advance justice for African Americans, had a chief rape investigator. That person was none other than Rosa Parks who, eleven years after that, became a civil-rights hero for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, launching the notorious Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks went to interview Recy Taylor, the local sheriff kept driving by the house and eventually burst in, threatening Rosa Parks with arrest if she didn’t leave town. After that, Parks launched the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.”
Through the course of the film, sadness, despair and rebellion of a personal and emotional nature gradually change to the collective and political. As the news about the crime gets out of the Recy’s hometown Abbeville, the scope of the archival material used expands again. A whole new universe opens up, thanks to the work and testimonies of the female experts–most notably Danielle McGuire, the author of At the Dark End of the Street the book that inspired the film, Crystal Feimster, professor of African American studies at Yale University and author of the book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, and Esther Cooper Jackson, journalist and activist, who was one of the first people that reported about the case. Together with clips from an impressive set of “race films”, the so-called “black press” (its existence and its importance) is documented. In the face of what McGuire calls “infrastructure of injustice”, where the white press ignored these kinds of crimes and thus gave judges and juries plausible deniability of any knowledge, the black press–newspapers such as The Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Afro-American and the like–was the only place where a journalist was able to publish articles about Recy and others.
This is a film about the heroism of Recy Taylor. It is also a film about the black civil rights movement and other courageous activists and publicists who had to fight sexism and racism simultaneously. Demonstrating how rights and visibility go hand in hand, it is a eulogy to the power of the media and a denunciation of the sexism and racism of the mainstream media. It is a timely movie for more than one reason, an insightful companion to the #MeToo movement and a female counter-voice to the Black Panther hype.