NYFF 2017: Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor

Last week, Deadline’s Amanda N’Duka reported that Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) “has signed on to direct an upcoming biopic on Rosa Parks, which will center on the decade before her seminal moment on a Montgomery bus, when Parks, already an activist of her time, sought justice for 24-year-old wife and mother Recy Taylor, who was brutally gang-raped by six white men in Alabama in 1944.”

Introducing his interview with Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story,By Sidney Lumet) for Filmmaker,Soheil Rezayazdi notes that “an all-white, all-male jury refused to indict any of these men. The Rape of Recy Taylor is the first documentary account of this horrific crime and the historic advocacy efforts it spawned. The film chronicles Rosa Parks and the NAACP’s campaign to find justice for Recy along with the larger role played by black women in the Civil Rights Movement.”

“This is a film about women’s crusade to protect their bodies and their dignity,” Buirski tells Women and Hollywood. “These crimes were and are a form of terrorism, but unlike other highly visible forms of terrorism, white men raping black women was a secret. Considered ‘unspeakable,’ these crimes were not spoken of publicly nor reported. These stories are hidden stories.”

The Rape of Recy Taylor feels all the more unsettling because Buirski treats Recy’s horrific fate in the present tense,” writes Leonard Goi for Kinoscope. “Archival videos of the civil rights protests that spread across the States after Recy’s rape are scattered with clips of Michelle Obama’s public speeches, and footage of the 1950s bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, is juxtaposed with photos from the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, including the iconic picture of the young African-American woman calmly standing before officers in full riot gear during a 2016 street march. The present-day mementos are a reminder that The Rape of Recy Taylor has seen no resolution. Though the state of Alabama issued a public apology for failing to prosecute Recy’s rapists in 2011, the discourse embraced by the white supremacists of the time, which helped the crime go unpunished, is still prominent in today’s public debates.”

“Via impassioned interviews with Yale scholar Crystal Feimster and nonfiction author Danielle L. McGuire, whose book At the Dark End of the Street was the inspiration for the movie”—and for Dash’s forthcoming narrative feature as well—“Buirski provides rich context,” writes David Rooney for the Hollywood Reporter. “The legacy of slavery remained so ingrained in the South that many white boys were taught by their fathers and grandfathers to view sex with a black woman as a rite-of-passage, consensual or not. According to the plantation attitude still somewhat prevalent then, black women's bodies did not entirely belong to them.”

“An opening caption fills us in on the ‘staggering’ number of rapes of black women by white men in ‘our country’s past’ and the fact that very few of the victims were brave enough to report these crimes,” writes Screen’s Lee Marshall. “A second tells us that Recy Taylor’s story will partly be told through ‘race films,’ vintage footage and home movies. . . . Race films were made by black directors like Oscar Micheaux with black casts, for black audiences. Like newspapers serving America’s black population, they dealt with issues, like white-on-black rape, that rarely surfaced in the country’s mainstream media. Spliced in among documentary archive material and interviews with experts and family members, scenes from films like Within Our Gates (1920) or Birthright (1939) hold up a melodramatic foil to the sober account of injustice and its aftermath.”

The Rape of Recy Tayler, which premiered in Venice and screens tonight and Tuesday at the New York Film Festival, is “a quiet, gorgeously composed and artistically edited piece of socio-political scholarship,” writes Joshua Brunsting for CriterionCast.

Update, 10/3: For IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, “the strength of Buirski’s film is in its restraint. The truth is horrific enough, but it must be told, and the clever and evocative construction of the documentary delivers it with the kind of respect that Taylor’s story demands.”

Updates, 10/5: “I’m breaking a self-imposed rule of not writing negatively about festival films,” declares the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “I’m doing so because the subject of the film, and Buirski’s approach to it, reaches beyond the frame into fundamental practices in documentary filmmaking and even further, into the woeful state of American society today. Also, I’m doing so because, regardless of the inadequacy of the film’s artistry, I hope that the film gets a theatrical release and is widely seen, because what’s good about it is more than good, it’s essential, which is what makes its shortcomings all the more conspicuous and frustrating.”

For Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, “The Rape of Recy Taylor is the strongest documentary in the NYFF line-up, a stirring, infuriating marvel. . . . Buirsky has many virtues as a filmmaker, her ability to conjure atmosphere the most cunning and impressive of all. In her documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, the sensuality of dance is communicated through still images and the interplay between music and silence. . . . Everything about The Rape of Recy Taylor aims to stay with you, to present the ugly history as something that cannot be scrubbed from the chambers of our memory.”

The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles an era of American history with which most of us are familiar,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker, “but it does so in a way that strips the period of its traditional hallmarks. By focusing on the advocacy efforts of women and visualizing their lives through race films, Buirski’s film allows us to see the Civil Rights Movement anew.”

Update, 10/9:Nick Schager talks with Buirski for the Daily Beast.

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