Monday, December 4, 2017

Black lives mattered: Nancy Buirski's latest, THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR, opens in theaters

Over the past six years documentarian Nancy Buirski has made four terrific non-fiction films: The Loving Story, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, By Sidney Lumet and now THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR. If her newest documentary does not reach -- film-wise, at least -- the level of her previous movies, its subject matter alone makes it an extremely important piece of work. The documentary relates the story of the titular 24-year-old black woman in Alabama back in 1944 who, after leaving an evening church service and walking toward her home and family, was forced at gunpoint into an automobile by/with six young white men, who took her off with them, raped her multiple times and mutilated her sexual organs (she was unable to have more children after the rapes) and then left her by the roadside, once she had promised "not to tell."

This is a disgusting tale, though not at all unusual in our Southern states during the time of Jim Crow (yes, and before and since). What makes it particularly resonant at this moment, of course, is all the instances of sexual harassment currently coming to the surface and their seeming consequences for the harassers.

I say "seeming" because only time will tell how much will actually "change" regarding male behavior toward the female. Yet whatever problems white women have had regarding sexual harassment, the plight of black women in our country's history would seem to be at least ten times as awful.

What made Recy Taylor's case so significant was less the event itself than her reaction to it. She and her family actually spoke up about what had happened to the community at large. Ms Buirski, shown at right, lets us discover all of this -- the event, finally, and Recy's and her family's reaction to it -- and her film is full of shock and anger at how and why all this took place. (And took place much more frequently than most of us whites would care to know.)

We experience how the black community around the nation rose to the occasion, raised money and publicized the event and its follow-up.

What makes the movie fall down somewhat, particularly compared with the filmmaker's earlier projects, is the fact that Buirski evidently did not have access to nearly as much specific archival footage as in her previous films. Consequently, she must rely on imagined or re-created footage, most of which simply does not do the trick.

Almost from the beginning, this seems unnecessarily repetitive and a little tiresome. And yet, once we hear the known facts of the case, the anger and enormous sense of injustice is so strong that it carries the movie along.

We hear from Recy's surviving family members, from a few of the surviving white families of the perpetrators or their friends, along with other Alabama folk -- many of whom present a very good picture of just why Roy Moore is so likely to win his upcoming election. It's a degrading, disgusting spectacle. But, hey, that's our South, honey. D.W. Griffith would be proud.

The Rape of Recy Taylor is a story that needs to be told, and I am glad Ms Buirski rose to the occasion. Given what she had to work with, I suspect that the film is as good as we could get in terms of a full-length documentary. Though perhaps an hour-long program for television might have worked even better.

From Augusta Films and running 91 minutes, the movie opens in Los Angeles this Friday, December 8, at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, and in New York City next Friday, December 15, at the IFC Center.

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