The first time most of us heard Recy Taylor’s name was during Oprah’s stirring “Me Too” speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, shortly after Taylor’s death at age 97.
In 1944, the young mother was leaving a church in Abbeville, Ala., when she was abducted and raped by six white men who were hunting for a black woman. Despite confessions, the men were never convicted.
Her story of injustice is memorialized in a new documentary by director Nancy Buirski. She felt compelled to tell Taylor’s story after reading a 2011 book “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power,” by Danielle L. McGuire. Buirski’s documentary is being shown at 3 p.m. March 24 at the University of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy Education Center at 2115 Summit Av. in St. Paul. It’s part of a daylong black history event sponsored by the university and St. Paul’s Ujamaa Place. A panel discussion will follow. Buirski, who recently sold the film to Starz, won’t be at the screening, but members of Recy Taylor’s family are expected. Tickets are free but registration is required at UjamaaPlace.org.
“My first film was called ‘The Loving Story.’ Do you know that film?” said Buirski. Of course I know about Richard and Mildred Loving, and we shared a laugh about her golden touch in project selection. “This [the Taylor documentary] is my fourth directed film,” said Buirski, whose directing credits include “Afternoon of a Faun” and “By Sidney Lumet.”
Q: I think the name of your documentary had to be “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” But did you worry that might be off-putting to a larger audience?
A: Some of the people who were involved in marketing the film had reservations. But it didn’t take long for them [to accept] the title. We thought, “Well, most people will know what kind of movie they are coming to see.” Most importantly, it was a way to honor Recy Taylor. Recy Taylor had spoken up and called the crime what it was. She was very clear about what had happened to her and had no shame about it. We felt we would, in a way, be dishonoring her by not calling it what it was. She and her family were very supportive of the film and the title.
Q: The presence of Rosa Parks in Recy Taylor’s story was a gift, right?
A: That is correct. It is definitely news to a lot of people that [Parks] not only was active so many years before the Montgomery boycott but active in this area — cared so much about violent assault and rape and was doing what she could to draw attention to it and trying to get justice for women who were assaulted. [These rapes were] not surprising. It’s surprising more of us didn’t know about it.
Q: Black newspapers were writing about this rape, but white-owned ones were ignoring Rosa Parks’ effort to get coverage?
A: That’s right. She and this committee, the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor — they had chapters all over the country — talked to a lot of African-American newspapers writing about these crimes. They pushed them to do that and were reaching out to many organizations to support Recy Taylor. And that started putting pressure on the white newspapers to write about it, as well. They just kept up this ongoing effort to draw attention to Recy Taylor. We are talking about hundreds of people writing letters to the governor, telegrams. They organized a rally at the Hotel Theresa in New York.
Q: Did you get the feeling the universe was trying to teach us something when the interracial couple whose marriage was to be litigated had the last name Loving?
A: I know. It was hard to get my mind wrapped around it.
Q: Friday on Twitter, “Is Bruno Mars guilty of cultural appropriation?” was trending. Has that criticism been lobbed in your direction?
A: No. There is often the question, “Why is the white woman making a film about issues of race?” My answer is that race is the American story, the American tragedy, and white people are complicit in that tragedy. We have a responsibility to deal with it. I bring a different perspective to the story compared to a black woman. I know black women will be telling this story and should. Every perspective and every dimension is important.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.