Portrait of Racy Taylor, as seen in The Rape of Recy Taylor (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

In the face of all evidence, some quests for justice do not end with justice served, but telling stories of a perverted process with a misguided ending is nevertheless important to set the record straight. The act forces us to face unpleasant truths and admire those who have persevered in face of indifference and outright lies to redress heinous wrongs.

The Rape of Recy Taylor aims to correct a flagrant case of injustice and provide the context in which it took place. The young black woman was seized from a dark Alabama roadside after church one night in 1944, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white teenagers. Director Nancy Buirski follows Taylor and her supporters’ drive to bring charges against the young men, a goal that proved elusive. Taylor received an apology from the state legislature of Alabama only in 2011, when she was in her 90s. (Taylor is briefly on camera; she’s frequently heard in voice-over.)

Taylor’s sister, Alma Daniels, and brother, Robert Corbitt, recount the trauma of that night with bewilderment and anger. Police wrongly labeled the churchgoing Taylor as a prostitute and prevented her family from attending hearings in court. Although Taylor readily identified her assailants, the white community protected them from the law. Retaliation followed. Despite the best efforts of Rosa Parks, then a young, pragmatic NAACP activist later to become a symbol of the civil rights movement, Taylor’s case ground on without resolution, and two grand juries failed to hand down indictments.

The film makes very clear how commonplace white-on-black rape was in that era. Good ol’ boys routinely honked a horn outside of black women’s houses and expected them to step outside for some “fun.” Scholars explain that white men’s sexual entitlement not only put black women in a horrible position but left black men feeling guilty and seething in rage.

Lacking footage of long-ago events, Buirski has to step outside the documentary box to create a sense of time and place. Eerie, glowing shots of trees, roads, and graveyards touched up by washes of saturated color heighten a sense of dislocation and powerlessness seen through the victim’s eyes. Dinah Washington singing in the background and folk tunes like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” vibrate with the act of bearing witness. Off-camera interviews sometimes make it hard to know who is talking and when, but the stories they tell are unsparing.

One touch that gives The Rape of Recy Taylor an edge of horror is its inclusion of clips from “race films,” produced by blacks in the Jim Crow South for black audiences. Providing a sharp counter-narrative to white America’s denials, these moving pictures painted a likeness of the violence and rape faced by African Americans in towns, on the roadside, and in the white man’s house. One clip features a leering white man attempting to rape his own mixed-race daughter. Melodramatic as it is, it strikes a note of coercion and terror that is hard to shake.

Recy Taylor’s story ended in stalemate, but America, Alabama, and the Taylor family are better off for Buirski’s telling it so many decades later. The film opens our eyes not just to one wrong but the greater system of wrongs that made it possible—a system whose ramifications we still live with today.

The Rape of Recy Taylor had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Written and Directed by Nancy Buirski, inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire
USA. 90 min.