It’s been under a month since the New York Times blew the lid off a supposed well-known secret in Hollywood that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed many women in the industry and coerced them to perform sexual favors for him in exchange for roles. The bombshell reports have encouraged other women to come forward with similarly demeaning experiences with Weinstein, and reignited a conversation among women across social media and beyond about gender politics and female bodies. Though it’s a very cathartic and necessary dialogue, it has one deeply problematic issue—it ignores the voices of women of color. While celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Lupita Nyong’o have recently contributed stories, it has mostly remained an alarmingly white discussion that has virtually silenced the rest of us. And that’s why The Rape of Recy Taylor is so important.
The documentary tells the story of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and wife in 1944, who was gang-raped by six white men in Alabama. Though she put her life on the line and identified each of her assailants, her case ultimately fell on deaf ears. It underscored why so many black women like Taylor—both then and now—didn’t come forward with their horrifying stories for fear they might be ignored, punished, or dismissed. Taylor’s case was 11 years before Emmett Till was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
While The Rape of Recy Taylor sadly does little to humanize the young victim—though her surviving brother and sister do offer a few remarks about her—it does succeed in telling a broader story about how important it is for women like Taylor to be included in the conversation. Women of color have historically been marginalized across society, hypersexualized in the media, repeatedly undervalued, and are told to remain silent and remain strong. The film, through interviews with scholars and historians, further emphasizes how black women have historically and out of necessity had to build their own movements that allowed them a platform to push forward agendas that directly spoke to their needs: (black) women’s equality, civil rights, and voting rights (to name a few). They were there for every major movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, spoke out when there was injustice against black men, and created the #metoo social media movement back in 2007 long before a white woman became the face of it most recently.
And yet our pain and struggles continue to be pushed inside the margins, even when our young girls were victimized by a well-known musician.
As the fight for visibility continues, the legacy of Recy Taylor, whose name may be unfamiliar but whose narrative mimics too many of our own, still resonates. But even though The Rape of Recy Taylor uncovers a significant history that has been veiled for too long, there is a palpable distance between the subject and its storyteller. Director Nancy Buirski chooses to wobbly present an abstract visual reenactment of Taylor and the era in which she lived, sacrificing a more authentic feel by including some of the other victims who’ve come after Taylor. In the awkward yet repeated recreation, there’s a black woman in a white dress running away in a field, though it would have been far more impactful to personalize the story with interviews with black women support-group members or someone from the NAACP in its place. She may have been well-intentioned, but her presentation is clunky.
Still, The Rape of Recy Taylor puts our voices back into the conversation and reminds audiences of our value in the movement. That’s worth the price of admission alone.