Film Review: ‘This Bitter Earth:’ The Rape of Recy TaylorBy Kelisha B. Graves
December 6, 2017
Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor’s younger sister, hums out a pithy ultimatum at the onset of the film: “What they did to her? They didn’t need to live.” Nancy Buirski’s documentary, ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor,’ is equal parts wrenching and relevant.
The documentary unfurls gingerly and casually against the beat of Fannie Lou Hamer’s gritty contralto softly belting out a Negro hymnal from the Civil War era entitled, “Run Mourner, Run”. Every song, overcast image, and off-centered camera angle is purposeful and calculated. Buirski’s musical choices are wisely ethnic. The importance of music in a documentary is that it both conjures and controls the mood. To be sure, Hamer’s singing (which is used repeatedly throughout the film) serves as the bridge that ushers us immediately into the freedom movement era. Even if Hamer’s singing serves as our entry point, her persona is equally as critical because it establishes this narrative as a point of origin for the civil rights movement. Thereto, Dinah Washington’s eerie grievance, “This Bitter Earth”, provides just the right amount of blues to make viewers comprehend the ache and anguish Taylor absolutely experienced. These are the moans and hums which tell the story of Africa’s displaced progeny and the tragedies and triumphs they experienced in America.
Buirski’s format is honorific. She loads this documentary with snippets of race films like Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919) and Birthright (1939), stock images of the antebellum period, and lopsided visuals of swaying trees and spooky southern roads. She also gives us a light drizzle of contemporary images as a critical addendum. These train our minds back to the fact that there are contemporary problems in our nation that still demand justice. Whereas documentary filmmakers might traditionally rely on dramatic reenactments, Buirski avoids custom. Perhaps the director implicitly knew that the material resident in the archive of the African American past had the potency to push the story forward without the need for dramatic reenactment. It’s a simple approach, perhaps even uncomplicated, but it works because it universalizes Mrs. Taylor’s story. She was one of thousands. But, what is important about Taylor is that she told her story, she spoke up. She survived.
Slavery had been abolished for nearly eighty years when 24 year-old Recy Taylor, was kidnapped on September 3, 1944, forced to strip, and ferociously ravished by six white “boys” at gunpoint. The ages of the “boys” ranged between 14 – 18 years old. Even if they were teenagers, to call them “boys” almost trivializes the torture they perpetrated against this black woman. It’s particularly oxymoronic in view of the “Kissing Case” in Monroe, NC where two young black boys (aged 7 and 9) were charged with rape for kissing a white girl. The acts performed against Recy Taylor’s body were savage and sundry. It did not matter that she was coming from a church revival; it did not matter that she was a wife and a mother; it did not matter that she was walking with another woman and a young black man…for company and protection, no doubt. She was raped because she was black, she was raped because she was a woman, she was raped because southern white men demanded that a black woman’s place was…prone. She was raped because it had been the sadistic nocturnal inclination and dirty prerogative of white men since slavery to seize the body of any black woman (or man) at whim.
Buirski’s film was inspired by Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, which provides an alternative historiography of the civil rights movement. Whereas scholars have traditionally maintained that the civil rights movement began with Rosa Parks’s refusal to yield her seat on a Montgomery bus, McGuire maintains that the civil rights movement emerged as a protest against the ritualistic rape and sexual abuse of black women by white men. She writes: “White men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black Women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South….The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.” Rosa Parks, the NAACP, and the Black press were central to making Taylor’s story nationally known. However, despite the efforts of Parks and others, justice was never secured for Mrs. Taylor. It was an understood fact that the “powers that be” were never legitimately interested in prosecuting six white men for raping a black woman. In fact, the family of the local county sheriff, Lewey Corbitt, who endeavored to squash Parks’s investigation of the case, owned Taylor’s family during slavery. All six of the men continued on with their lives while Mrs. Taylor was left to deal with the scratches and scars…the bitter soreness. In 2011, the state of Alabama issued a delayed apology.
Mrs. Taylor appears only intermittently in the film (I am convinced that we could have benefitted from more footage of Taylor); nevertheless, we hear her voice. The camera focuses on Taylor seated in a wheelchair as Dinah Washington’s chilling gripe, “This Bitter Earth,” closes out the film. She’s clad in royal blue with a string of pearls and an up-do. Having lived through all of the 20th century and nearly a quarter of the 21st century, she’s sacred and fragile in the way that our old church mothers are. This is a reminder that we must handle our elders (and their stories) with honor and respect. Taylor’s voice carries the weight of a woman who has lived nearly a century. She’s a natural alto whom the long years have made a reluctant tenor. As a black southerner, the ungrammatical profundity of her deep southern staccato is familiar to me in a down-home kind of way. The voices of Taylor’s siblings Robert Corbitt and Alma Daniels are reminiscent of the talk uttered by many of our southern elders. I cannot avoid my emotional attachment to this film because it reminds me of family. Despite the bitter cup forced upon her, Mrs. Taylor’s courage speaks to the resolve that many of our elders maintained in the face of injustice: “I can’t help but tell the truth. They could have killed me anyway…with the gun. The Lord is just with me that night.”
Nancy Buirski’s documentary, “The Rape of Recy Taylor” is pivotal and mandatory.