For every story we’ve heard about the Civil Rights Movement, there are a countless others which have stayed out of most history books. Nancy Buirski’s one director hoping to change that, telling the story of The Loving’s marriage with 2011’s The Loving Story (the basis for last year’s Loving), and now the story of The Rape of Recy Taylor. Taylor, a young wife and mother living in the Alabama during Jim Crowe was brutally gang raped by a group of white men…but in response to this violent crime she attempted to seek legal justice. Just a week ago Burski’s film opened in limited release in LA, and screened in Alabama to encourage citizens to get out the vote (perhaps playing a role in Alabama’s recent election). We spoke about telling this piece of civil rights history and how timely this story truly is.
Lesley Coffin: How did you come across this piece of history?
Nancy Buirski: Scholars do know of Recy Taylor, there’s a small exhibitor about her in the Smithsonian museum of African American History and Culture. But I read about her in Danielle McGuire’s book “At the Dark End of the Street.” That book deals with African American women in from Recy Taylor’s time up through the black power movement. But the first couple chapters deal with Recy Taylor’s story. But I didn’t know about her before then, or the staggering number of rapes during Jim Crowe. I knew men had been lynched but didn’t realize just how many women had been raped.
Lesley Coffin: While doing research on the times of Jim Crowe, did you find a similar mentality of the men perpetrating both crimes?
Nancy Buirski: Both were simply about white supremacy. Men who believed that they needed to maintain their status in society through both acts of violence. They were using terrorist tools to let African Americans know where they felt their place was. It’s all part of the legacy of slavery.
Lesley: Who did you turn to when you decided to tell this story as a documentary to start the research process and connect with the interview subjects?
Nancy Buirski: I contacted Danielle McGuire, asking if she’d be interested in participating. And she was excited and knew my work. She knew the documentary I’d made The Loving Story. She introduced me Recy’s brother and sister. And my co-producer and cinematographer came with me to Alabama to interview Recy Taylor. We recorded that interview within weeks of deciding to make the film because we knew how old she was.
Lesley Coffin: Did her family have any apprehension about participating?
Nancy Buirski: Not at all. Robert Corbett has essentially committed his life to getting Recy’s story out there and brining her some sense of justice. He’s thrilled by the exhibit in DC and happy to cooperate with Danielle on the book. And he was thrilled to work with us, we did three days of interviews. And we’re still very close to him, he came to the Venice and New York Film Festivals. Sadly, his sister Alma’s no longer with us but she was very happy to participate as well.
Lesley Coffin: This isn’t a story that’s easy to tell in a visual way, because there aren’t the archival materials available to you. How did you plan the best way to tell the story visually?
Nancy Buirski: There’s no recreations, we used contemporary footage of Abbeville for context, race films from the 1920s and 30s, and some vintage footage from the area. We wanted to weave them together as a tapestry.We had some great researchers who discovered the vintage footage from the area. I was familiar with race films and had a great collection called “Pioneers of African American Cinema”, a DVD that had been released by Kino. There are many, many race films that are still available, which were made in response to the depiction of African Americans in mainstream films. Within Our Gates was Oscar Micheaux response to Birth of a Nation.
Lesley Coffin: You included some interviews with the brothers of the men who committed this crime. Did you have any apprehension about including their perspectives?
Nancy Buirski: Not at all. I think a documentary should immerse you as much as possible in the time and the place. And I think it’s important to see these men talk about rapists as boys with too much time on their hands. Or suggest there’s this boys will be boys’ mentality out there, shocking when talking about a crime like that. How else, as an audience, do we understand that mentality unless we hear someone say that? I certainly don’t want a scholar to say it.
Lesley Coffin: What was it like to be present during those interviews?
Nancy Buirski: The most important thing for me is to just let them talk and have a conversation, not to lead them. The most telling interviews was the interview with Larry Smith. I’m not going to talk about his politics, but he’s hedging and concerns about living in the town.
Lesley Coffin: Filming in that town today, did you notice how this part of their history permeates their current community?
Nancy Buirski: I think you see it in the interviews with those men. The legacy of white supremacists has been passed down. There were a number of businessmen we wanted to talk to who wouldn’t speak with us. We were uncomfortable shooting there. There was tension making the movie. That said, there’s an election going on there and there are a lot of progressive people who don’t want Roy Moore in office, and they are using our film as a get out the vote tool. For every man who says boys will be boys, there are five more who are enraged when they hear this story.
Lesley Coffin: Have you seen the film play differently based on the kind of community you’re in?
Nancy Buirski: We’re just starting to release the film, and at this point we’ve done festivals which are primarily in coastal cities. But we have a robust impact campaign for the film, to ensure it gets out to places which wouldn’t normally have access to a film of this kind. Reaching out to church groups and community centers, and planning specialty screenings.
Lesley Coffin: Rosa Parks makes a very important appearance in the film, and she’s so well-known and such a symbol of women in the civil Rights movement. How did you approach that aspect of the story so she didn’t overshadow Recy Taylor?
Nancy Buirski: The key was showing how Recy Taylor is the first link of a long chain that moved us along the civil Rights movement and right into today. It was critical that we kept this in context of this one story. I didn’t want to break away to telling a story about Rosa Parks. And we had a chance to get that context in, because it was an important reveal that Rosa Parks had been so involved in that kind of work 11 years before the bus boycott. The movie is about Recy Taylor, and all the women who organized to try to get her some sense of justice. That’s what’s so important, getting her justice was a function of so many women who eventually become the powering tool of the civil rights movement. And weaving that together was a challenge, keeping it from splintering into two stories.
Lesley Coffin: Were you filming this movie during the last presidential election?
Nancy Buirski: I started before that. There’s a segment with Michelle Obama, giving a speech after President Trump boasted about groping women. She rarely spoke out about those matters but she clearly had had enough and that’s the speech she gave in New Hampshire.
Lesley Coffin: Did that make the film feel more timely and relevant?
Nancy Buirski: It did. I want people to acknowledge the role African American women had bringing this issue to the forefront. And acknowledge the courage those women who spoke up had, because very few did, or felt they could. When they did it took tremendous bravery because their lives were at risk. That’s not to tremendous the bravery white women had, then or today. One is not better or worse. I just don’t want them left out of the conversation.
© Lesley Coffin (11/14/17) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media’s review of The Rape of Recy Taylor HERE.
Photos: The Rape of Recy Taylor
Photo Credits: Augusta Films