1944 was seventy-four years ago, but The Rape of Recy Taylor, a new documentary about the rape of a twenty-four year-old black woman by six, young, white men in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944 makes seventy-four years ago feel like today. This elegiac, bracing film details the rape itself, Mrs. Taylor’s subsequent fight in and against the legal system (which involved a young Rosa Parks years before she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott), and the ways her fight echoed out into the greater Civil Rights movement in the following decades. Recy Taylor’s cries for justice echo still.
The Rape of Recy Taylor makes this claim by integrating archival footage of home movies from the first half of the twentieth century, clips from “race films” (films made by and for black audiences), present-day news footage of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and interviews with Taylor’s family and historians. By collapsing all this footage into a slow cross-fade of imagery, the film makes all of history current. Mrs. Taylor’s assailants were never convicted though most of them confessed to the crime, and given that the state of Alabama finally issued a formal apology to Mrs. Taylor in 2011, her story is current and worth our attention.
Recy Taylor’s story has been made even more current by the fact that she was recently mentioned by Oprah Winfrey in her speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards. Winfrey pointed to Taylor’s story as paradigmatic of the struggles women face to be believed when they report sexual abuse. Winfrey said:
Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.
I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks' heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it's here with every woman who chooses to say, "Me too." And every man—every man who chooses to listen.
Most striking, The Rape of Recy Taylor demonstrates how, though the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, it was really women who made up the vast majority of the people actually carrying out the protests, sit-ins, and boycotts that were the actual campaign for equality. Eighty percent of all civil rights activists, the documentary claims, were black women. If we dare to join their struggle, we participate in a movement of black women pushing for change. In addition to being a stirring story in its own right, The Rape of Recy Taylor reminds us that to work for justice is to side with those whom we most often overlook. The cries for justice come from the margins. We must listen. Recy Taylor’s struggle for justice is our struggle for justice and will be until ultimate justice is achieved.