If there’s one thing the past year has demonstrated, it’s that American society is not as modern as we thought. Just the last month has proven how much regressive gender and racial issues still plague the nation, as exemplified by the senatorial race in the state of Alabama. So Nancy Buirski’s accessible but uneven documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor” — about the 1944 case of a 24-year-old black woman abducted and gang raped near her home in Abbeville, Ala., whose white abusers were never so much as arrested, let alone convicted of any crime — arrives at a pivotal moment, nationally and regionally.
Timing alone makes “The Rape of Recy Taylor” something close to essential viewing. But Buirski’s approach is oddly diffuse, lacking the clarity of rage that has informed so many recent touchpoints in social-issue documentary. Instead, the tone is mournful and a little misted over with time (especially in the first half), an effect magnified by Buirski’s evocative but sometime overpowering use of music, and the selection of black-and-white footage she uses to illustrate the story.
To the accompaniment of Dinah Washington’s desperately beautiful rendition of “This Bitter Earth,” layered on top of Max Richter’s increasingly familiar “On the Nature of Daylight,” these segments are, as some titles explain, largely culled from the “race films” of the era. These were films shot cheaply with largely African-American casts to show in makeshift theaters, churches and meeting halls in cinematically underserved black communities. But this fascinating take on the racial mores of the time from within that community is also a whole universe unto itself, meaning that trying to parse these fragments while Recy Taylor’s story is unfolding becomes a dissonant exercise. At best, it gives an impression of the pervasive racial panic of 1940s America from those at its pointy end; at worst, it distracts from a historically overlooked story.
The facts come to us largely through first-person testimony from Taylor’s elderly siblings Alma Daniels (who died in 2016) and Robert Corbitt, along with some older audio of Recy herself describing the horrific attack, and they are starkly powerful and unimpeachably convincing. On a September evening in 1944, walking home to her husband and infant child after a late church service, Recy Taylor was forced at gunpoint into a white Chevrolet by seven young white men and driven into the woods, where six of them raped her, some repeatedly, over the course of several hours.
The driver of the car, who confirmed the identities of the other six men, said he did not rape Taylor “because he knew her.” It speaks to the truth of an unexpectedly poignant moment later on, when interviewee Crystal Feimster, an associate professor at Yale, is visibly moved trying to comprehend the rapists’ mindset, and how they just “didn’t see” Taylor — as in, they could not comprehend this black woman, frightened and brutalized and begging to be let go home to her child, as a person.
But if the aim of “The Rape of Recy Taylor” is to instill a sense of that personhood, it is only partially successful. In fact, the more compelling second half of the documentary shifts focus away from her and onto the way she became, again, something other than a person. This time, Taylor, whose bravery in continually speaking out about the attack cannot possibly be overstated, became a symbol for the nascent Civil Rights movement, for the NAACP and for a pre-bus-protest Rosa Parks. Feimster, probably the most valuable outside commentator here, points out the conundrum of becoming, briefly, a rallying point for progressive change: The movement will move on, and you can find yourself left behind in history.
Buirski, who was also a producer on Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” having directed the 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” has uncovered some vital material and assembled some articulate interviewees (not counting local Alabama historian Larry Smith, whose characterization of certain relations between white men and their slaves as “consensual” is enraging and goes unchallenged). But the way the information is presented in “The Rape of Recy Taylor” can frustrate: The film’s remit is neither broad enough to present a definitive account of the history of black women’s activism in mid-century America, nor narrow enough to bring the reality of Recy Taylor’s personal story home with full force.
And yet in the highly charged political and social environment of today’s America and today’s Alabama, the bald facts of this case, however they are communicated, remain acutely provocative. Taylor, now a frail lady only glimpsed outside of archive photos very briefly, will turn 98 on New Year’s Eve. Her life as a wronged, oppressed, ignored and dehumanized black woman has spanned an American century, but 2017 might as well be 1944 for all the justice she has ever found.