The Rape of Recy Taylor Movie Review: An Important Story, but a Problematic Film

While there are some things about this documentary I liked, overall I came away disappointed and angry.
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In September of 1944, Recy Taylor and two friends were walking home from church when a carload of six white teenagers came upon them and, under the threat of death, took Recy Taylor and raped her. Each one of the six teens taking a turn. The documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, follows the story of Recy Taylor speaking out against her attackers and her and her family's search for justice in the Jim Crow South.

In this documentary, director Nancy Buirski  uses interviews, footage from race films, artifacts, and music to retell Mrs. Taylor's story. Buirski credits her inspiration for the documentary on the book, 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. In McGuire's book, Recy Taylor's story is only one of the many tales of sexual assault that McGuire covers in the book. However, Mrs.Taylor's case has come back into the public eye since Oprah Winfrey mentioned her during her Golden Globe's speech in January of this year. McGuire's book also tells the lesser known stories of Rosa Parks Civil Rights activism away from her refusing to give up her seat on the bus. As an American Studies scholar who studies race, I have personally read McGuire's book three times and was eager to cover this film. While there are some things about this documentary I liked, overall I came away disappointed and angry.

The use of the race films in this documentary is a nice device to help tell this story as well as the larger story of the history of sexual assault against Black women and the fight for bodily autonomy. I  loved how Buirski opens and closes the film with the footage of the woman in the white dress running down the road.  It is am important visual that comes full circle through Mrs. Taylor's story.  The choice to list the films next to the footage used in the film in the credits was a nice touch in the event an audience member wanted to seek out those films on their own. The soundtrack to this film is also quite effective. The choice of songs throughout helps set both the tone and the mood of the film.

Overall, the pacing of this film is not well done. The first half is very slow with long musical breaks in between the story line, which really slows down the pace of the documetary. The second half picks up but tries to cover too much historical and informational ground. If this film had been better paced and Buirski had spread that information out more, everything that is presented could have had more impact. While I understand that this film is about Recy Taylor's search for justice to only mention events like the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in passing does not really illustrate or give context to the audience how important Recy's case was to the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for Black women to be able to claim their bodies as their own.

Recy Taylor's story is important but I would have liked to hear more from her directly since the film does include her in voiceover and some footage of Mrs. Taylor towards the end.  However, if more inclusion of Mrs. Taylor was not possible, I wish that Buirski addressed that more. Instead, the audience gets more of the story from Recy Taylor's brother Robert Corbitt and her sister Alma Daniels.

So that is why I am disappointed in  the documentary,The Rape of Recy Taylor. Now let me address is why I am  angry.

Buirski tries to offer some other perspectives in the film through the eyes of Dillard York and Luther Lee's brothers as well as local Alabama amateur historian Larry Smith. However, when Larry Smith is first introduced his title simply reads "local Alabama historian" and does not mention anything about his amateur status. This status is not revealed until he admits his amateur status towards the end of the film. I find the inclusion of Smith without context early in the film irresponsible on the filmmakers part as Smith espouses incorrect "facts" about enslaved Africans and African American and makes claims that sexual relations between slave masters and black women was at times consensual.

This idea of consensual sex between enslaved Africans and plantation owners is a romantic one claimed by some southerners and white supremacists. In reality, when a person owns another person under the law, there is no true ability to consent. While some relationships, both sexual and not, during slavery may not have been as brutal as others, to romanticize it to this extent is a gross misstatement of history and does harm to the true horrific legacy of slavery and the Africans and African-Americans effected by slavery.

As an educated scholar and historian who studies race and ethnicity in the United States, I find that Buirski is expecting too much of her audience not to give context to Larry Smith's statements in the beginning. While some might rethink Smith's statements once they hear his comments towards the end of the film, it is fair to say that some people will take his statements about enslaved African and African-Americans at face value and accept those as fact. These kind of fallacies only help reinforce white supremacy and the othering of Black Americans and especially Black women. The myth of Black women being sexually free and open to any man who wants to sexually engage with her is still alive in America today. These ideas about sexual immorality and looseness need to be refuted so that this ideology can die Women of color are still fighting for autonomy and true control over their bodies. Smith's comments without context only reinforce this damaging ideology.

Buirski also treads some dangerous ground when the brothers of Dillard York and Luther Lee talk about York and Lee's honorable military careers. To the untrained historian, like Larry Smith, this kind of attention can overshadow the fact that these men brutally raped a woman and forever changed Recy Taylor's life and her body. It also lends credence to the idea that these men were not "such bad guys" and reinforces the beliefs of some people in Abbeville, Alabama who still don't believe Recy Taylor's story. The refuting or contextualizing of York and Lee's statements by Dr. Crystal Feimster or Dr. Danielle L. McGuire could have put their interviews in better context, but instead, these interviews were just allowed to stand alone. It is important for scholars to be able to respond and react to history that continues to come from a position of power and continues to other people of color and create larger silences in the history. If these silences are not filled with the loud voices of the people who were silenced, then deadly ideas and institutions like white supremacy will continue to thrive. This film would have been better served with McGuire or Feimster responding to the "history" that Larry Smith recounts and noting and addressing the silences that Lee and York create by getting to paint their brothers as heroes.   It makes me wonder if Buirski wanted us to feel sympathy for these men.

While I want audiences to learn Recy Taylor's story, McGuire's book does a better job than Buirski's film. While I know everyone won't go read McGuire's book, I am hesitant to recommend this film unless the people coming to watch it have a better understanding of history than Larry Smith. And sadly in this day and age, that's not something I can just count on.

The Rape of Recy Taylor will be available on Digital HD on March 27, 2018

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