Coincidentally, the final three documentaries that close out my coverage of the 2018 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival all dealt with American errors, if not outright atrocities, and contemporary efforts to face them. Each of them was well-crafted and enlightening, and will reward your viewing as they make their way to cinemas and streaming media.
The Rape of Recy Taylor doesn’t pull any punches with its title, but its handling of sensitive subject matter is commendable. In recounting the strivings of an African American woman to find justice in 1940s Alabama, Nancy Buirski’s documentary doesn’t sensationalize.
Instead, Buirski inventively utilizes clips of “race films” from the 1910s to 1950s to illustrate the reality that black women’s bodies were not their own in the Jim Crow South, where employers and neighbors could harass, rape, and even murder them with scant worry of justice catching up to them. Race films – one of many things I learned about in this excellent documentary – were created with black casts for black audiences, to depict concerns that would never be covered in mainstream news or movies of that era. They also allowed for a depth of characterization beyond the Sambos and Jezebels that populated even films directed by masters of cinema (the double meaning of master is intentional) like Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith.
Recy Taylor was an ordinary 24 year old woman walking home from a religious revival, when she was abducted and raped at gunpoint by six white teens and young men from her town. Rather than docilely submitting to her fate, which would’ve been understandable in a town where a lynching had occurred a mere seven years ago, Taylor sought justice.
As law enforcement and the judicial system failed her, the NAACP in the form of an investigator named Rosa Parks (you may have heard of her) stepped in to advocate for her. Where the white press ignored her cause, black newspapers like The Chicago Defender and black women’s organizations publicized her plight nationwide.
The Rape of Recy Taylor unfolds over seven decades, using interviews with her family and a brief interview with Taylor herself (she was quite ill at the time of the film’s production). Buirski even talks with surviving siblings of her attackers; the rapists themselves are all thankfully dead and gone. The siblings offer dismissive “boys will be boys” rationalizations (not unlike our president’s “locker room talk” excuse) and try to offer the rapists’ military service in WW2 and Korea as somehow exculpatory. A local Alabama historian disgraces his profession by claiming it would be better to snuff Taylor’s narrative, because it makes people uncomfortable.
Despite this attempt at a counter-narrative of excuse-making and suppression, the focus of Buirski’s film upon Taylor, her family, and supportive activists results in a story of heroism and a refusal to play by the rules of the white hegemony. Commentary by real historians of integrity – like Danielle McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street – provides broader context for the too-often unsung importance of women’s involvement in the civil rights movement. (4 out of 5 stars)
Where The Rape of Recy Taylor shows Southern efforts to deny its racist legacy, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 contrarily introduces us to an Arizona town grappling with a horrible event in its own past. On July 12, 1917, the local sheriff and a gaggle of hastily deputized citizens rounded up nearly 1200 copper miners, put them in boxcars, and deposited them in the desert, with orders never to set foot in Bisbee again.
The miners’ offense? Walking off the job, in demand of better safety measures and an end to discrimination (90% of the miners were born outside the U.S., mostly Mexican or Slavic in origin). And despite the manifestly illegal action by the mining company and Sheriff Wheeler, no perpetrator ever faced any consequences, in a town once Arizona’s wealthiest, at an enterprise run by the second largest mining company in the world.
Director Robert Greene follows the buildup to the event and the reenactment itself, mostly through lengthy candid discussions with the townspeople. By contrast to the Alabama historian, Bisbee’s local chronicler speaks of the deportation as a “genuine tragedy.”
Other interview subjects are more divided. A retired mine executive, who plays a similar role in the re-creation, still maintains that the deportation was necessary, using the stale rationale that it protected Bisbee’s women and children. A Bisbee woman whose grandfather placed his own brother on the train out of town, likewise justifies the action, this time alleging Communist and anti-American influences on the strikers. While she doesn’t take part in the reenactment, she nonetheless sticks around to witness it, with her two adult sons playing the roles of her grandfather and great-uncle.
Greene admirably resists the temptation to overtly take sides, allowing subjects to speak for themselves. It’s interesting to see some deporters stay intransigent in their opinions, while others are visibly distressed by play-acting their parts. One of the more intriguing transformations involves Fernando Serrano, a young man playing a striking worker. He starts off noncommittal, despite his Mexican mother undergoing her own deportation when he was a child, but clearly makes an about-face as the reenactment unfolds.
Just as commendably, Greene’s lack of personal sermonizing gives space for viewers to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections to present-day anti-immigrant rhetoric and contemporary law that favors corporations over workers. The fact that some Bisbee townspeople still support an illegal rights grab should temper hopes that today’s xenophobes and corporation huggers will see the error of their ways. (4 out of 5 stars)
My final film’s title – Rodents of Unusual Size – made clear that its directors would handle their topic with a welcome dose of levity. The critters in question are nutria, 20 pound behemoths with orange teeth that have overrun Louisiana during the past 60 years. Originally imported from Argentina by a scion of the Tabasco sauce family as a source of cheap fur, enough of them escaped (or were released) to reach a peak population of 25 million.
Nutria are undeniably adorable, but their rabbit-like reproductive rate and voracious root-devouring appetites are nothing but trouble. Hastening Louisiana’s rate of land erosion (already the highest in the continental U.S.), their gnawing undermines bridge foundations and the canal system that protects New Orleans from hurricane damage.
Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer – the film’s co-directors – keep Rodents’ tone light from the outset, with an opening sequence containing visuals in the style of a children’s pop-up book, narrated by Louisiana-born actor Wendell Pierce. The non-nutria protagonists – a Cajun fisherman who hunts them for their $5 per tail bounty during his off-season, an animal control officer with a hunting dog named George W. Bush, a fashion designer using nutria pelts as part of a “sustainable fur” movement – add local color from a region justly famous for its local color. These are decent folks who clearly don’t take themselves too seriously, despite taking their vocations seriously.
Rodents of Unusual Size falls into the category of documentary about a topic I didn’t know I was interested in, until it was told interestingly. During the Q&A after its screening, the co-directors, with their history of crafting sober environmental films, stated they were drawn to this material because of its fascinating human characters and, well, giant rodents with orange teeth. They also wanted to direct an environmental success story (sometimes hard to find), where governmental and citizen endeavors have reduced the impact of an invasive species to a manageable size. (3.5 out of 5 stars)