The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

 

This is an impressive and important film though at times it offers painful viewing. The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important in the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans. In this case the struggle achieved only partial results but it was a seminal step in the struggle.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter include clips from feature films.  Most of the clips are from the films of  Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

The style of the film is excellent with fine work in cinematography, editing and special effects. In particular there are a series of beautifully composed superimpositions and some meaningful montage. The beauty of parts of the film provide a dramatic counterpoint to the agonies of the story. The testimonies from the family and Recy herself both describe the incident and comment upon it. Two contemporary commentators draw out the key position these events and struggle played in the long march of Afro-American resitance. But late in the film comments by white residents demonstrate how the much remains to be achieved.

This is a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up with a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both the rape of black women and the lynching of black people.

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