The ways in which the work, stories, and lives of Black women get erased in America are legion, and infuriating. Example of the moment: It was a Black woman, Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo campaign more than a decade ago, but it didn’t get any attention until well-off white women appropriated it just a few months ago, and now, suddenly, people are listening. Burke is not featured on the cover of Time magazine for its Person of the Year designation awarded to “The Silence Breakers” over sexual harassment, though Burke is mentioned, briefly, in Time’s article… mostly so she can praise white women.
I had never heard of Recy Taylor before, and I should have: she is an absolutely badass pioneer of the American civil rights movement, but she’s been all but ignored outside of history that is specifically focused on the Black experience in America, which is ridiculous; the Black American experience in many ways is the American experience, an uphill battle for sovereignty and self-determination over those who would dictate limited terms under which you should live. My first impulse — before I saw The Rape of Recy Taylor — would have been to say that her name should be as well known to white Americans as that of Rosa Parks’s. But as this eye-opening (for white people) documentary demonstrates, even what we white Americans “know” about Rosa Parks has almost entirely erased how absolutely badass she was, too.
There’s a sense of, well, whatever the appalled opposite of glee is, to how documentarian Nancy Buirski structures her film. This is a story of violent crime, and women ignored, and justice denied, and while there’s triumph and dignity in the battle the film depicts, it’s a long hard slog, one that is still being slogged at. There’s a sense of shocked revelation, as Buirski digs into Taylor’s story, at how every single aspect of what happened to her is echoed in some other way in which Black Americans and specifically Black American women have been marginalized. There are a lot of threads to be connected here — and I suspect there are other additional threads that have not even been touched upon — but the film never feels haphazard with it. There’s a kind of investigatorial satisfaction to how every dark corner Buirski illuminates uncovers another related horror.
Again, I don’t think any of this will be news to Black Americans. I almost want to facepalm that Buirski is herself white. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know anything discussed here before another white woman told me about it.
Taylor’s story is this: In 1944, in Alabama, she was gang-raped by six white men. This was nothing out of the ordinary; Black women were raped by white men in shocking numbers, and the perpetrators got away with it. What was extraordinary about Taylor is that she demanded justice for it. She went to the police. She didn’t get much satisfaction. Which is when Rosa Parks swept in: Parks, it turns out, was something of an avenging champion of Black Americans who needed legal help. (Note: This is more than a decade before Parks’s 1955 bus protest, and she was already well known among Black Americans for her activism. All Americans should be ashamed that her legacy has been minimized.)
But this is far from the whole story, Buirski brings in “race films,” a terribly disparaging name for a whole other alt-film industry by Black Americans, for Black Americans, which told the stories that Hollywood wouldn’t tell… such as how Black women were easy targets for white rapists. (Buirski uses clips from some of those films to tell Taylor’s story.) Buirski brings in the Black press, which reported the stories that the mainstream (ie, white) press wouldn’t tell… in which Taylor’s fight for justice was huge news. There is a feeling here of a curtain being drawn back to show a fuller, more complete history of America that too many of us have been ignorant of. And yet it’s only scratching the surface of that, too.
The Rape of Recy Taylor, then, becomes an unexpectedly sprawling tale, but a concise one, and a devastating one, about how Black Americans have been sidelined in their own nation. I am enraged by this. Everything about Recy Taylor’s story is a crime that cannot be abided. And if I’m this angry, I cannot even begin to imagine how Black Americans must feel about it. Every American should see this movie, and be embarrassed by it. And astonished by it, for it tells a story that we should all already be so familiar with that it feels epic.