The Rape of Recy Taylor’s Director on the Oprah Effect

At the Golden Globe awards ceremony on Sunday night, while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement, Oprah Winfrey used her enormous platform and oratory skills to shine light on a little-known historical figure who’d died at the end of December: Recy Taylor. Taylor was a black woman who, in 1944, was kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of white men while she was coming home from church. The men threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone. But Taylor immediately began sharing exactly what had happened to her, both with her family and local law enforcement. And though there was abundant evidence, the men were never charged. Even so, Taylor pursued the case, risking her life and property.

Taylor’s case caught the attention of the black press and a pre-bus-boycott Rosa Parks, then at the NAACP, who came to Taylor’s hometown of Abbeville, Alabama, to advocate for justice. Justice was unfortunately never found. Filmmaker Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) recently made a documentary about Taylor’s horrific assault and her bravery in speaking out called The Rape of Recy Taylor. The film was released just three weeks before Taylor’s death at the age of 97. Vulture caught up with Buirski a few days after the Globes to talk about the Oprah effect, the choice she made to use “race films” in her documentary, and her rush to make the film before Taylor’s passing.

Were you surprised to see Recy Taylor’s name mentioned in such a prominent way at the Golden Globes on Sunday night?
I was thrilled. But there was a part of me that wasn’t surprised. Because [Oprah Winfrey] said, there is someone you should know from history, leading into it. And when she said it, I was thinking there is only one person who would warrant this kind of attention, in light of the climate that we’re in and the movement that is developing. If we’re talking about a historical person, this is the person we should be talking about. So, when she said her name, there was a part of me that said, finally. It just felt inevitable. But that’s not to say I wasn’t thrilled and jumping up and down.

And how did Recy Taylor first come to your attention?
I read a book called At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire. She spends the first few chapters of that book on Recy Taylor and her relationship with Rosa Parks. As soon as I read it, I was absolutely committed to making the movie. My producer and I literally ran down to Abbeville to interview her, and her brother and sister, almost a week later. We understood how old she was, and we committed ourselves immediately to doing it, without any money or anything. We just had to do it.

Was this before 2011, when the state of Alabama issued a public apology to her?
No, I only started working on it in 2015. Here’s another case where this apology was issued and then she’s forgotten again. This is a woman who has been unrecognized for such a long time. After the grand jury hearings that did not indict the rapists, she was basically forgotten by the organization that had been championing her cause. They moved on to others, which was understandable. But she got left, as they say, in the dustbin of history. And her brother, Robert, has made it his mission in life to not let that happen, to make sure that no one forgets who Recy Taylor is. He helped the woman who was writing the book, and he got very involved with helping with the film.

You said in another interview that you hoped the film would help drive “a reckoning beyond the apology.” What did you mean by that exactly? 
I think what we’re talking about is that more people, not just the legislators from Alabama, appreciate the profound trauma and crime that took place in September of 1944 in Abbeville. They should be incredibly moved by what [Taylor] went through and by her courage to speak up. And to understand that what happened to her, happened to many. That’s where the reckoning has to come. It’s not only supporting Recy Taylor, but understanding how systemic this was and how many African-American women have gone through this for decades.

The footage you used from African-American films from that time, or “race films” [cheap films made with all-black casts for black audiences in the early 20th century] was very effective for that.
Thank you.

So how did you come to the decision to use those films?
Well, actually, you answered that question by asking it, right after we started talking about how it was happening to many women. That’s the answer. I realized that we needed to express that [it was happening to many women]. And I didn’t just want to express that with [a talking head] telling me that, I wanted to express it visually and symbolically. And these “race films” spoke to me. They became beautiful symbols, in a way, of what had happened to other women. There’s almost a biblical quality about the aesthetic of those films — I thought people would then begin to appreciate the exhaustive number of women that were affected by this terrible brutality.

I have another formal question. You mentioned Robert, Recy’s brother, and he’s used very prominently in the film, but you made the decision to not show Recy until the end of the film, which gives the effect of showing that she outlived her attackers — which is quite remarkable. But what made you decide to hold that reveal till the end?
It kind of happened almost inadvertently. What you just said, the effect it had, was something that ratified the necessity to do that, because she was ailing and she wasn’t able to speak to us very much. So that interview at the end was very short; we didn’t have very much. Now, there has been other footage of her and other interviews with her, but we wanted this to be more personal, so we wanted it to be our interview. And since she wasn’t available and able to speak to us that much, once we cut the film and we put that at the end, we realized how effective it was. Sometimes these things happen by chance. It just felt like the right thing once we looked at it that way, that’s what we felt we had achieved: making us feel that she had outlived all these people.

I see. Are the other interviews from documentaries? I believe yours is the first?
No, no, when she got the apology there were a couple of small interviews with her, but no other documentaries on her. Can I just go back [to the previous question]? As far as footage, we had the family movies, we saw her at a different age, we have the photographs, so I hope she still has a presence in movie. And we thread her voice through the film. It was just the actual contemporary footage that had to be curtailed.

And I’m sure your footage of her was probably some of the last footage of her since she died so recently.
It is. There’s nothing else after that.

Wow. And I know this is sort of a difficult question, but did you feel a special pressure making this as a white woman, telling the story of two prominent black women?
I knew that for some black women there might have been concern about a white woman telling it, but overall everyone has been extremely receptive to this movie and just so happy it was made. I approached it as a white woman who has tremendous empathy and responsibility to tell these stories, that are really American stories, not just race stories. However, I also appreciate the fact that I cannot tell the story the way an African-American woman would tell it, so I understand I’m bringing a different dimension to the story. And I’m hoping that the story gets told again by everybody.

Like Loving. You made the documentary The Loving Story and then somebody else made the fiction film Loving.
Yes, yes, that’s right. Basically, everyone who tells the story brings their own dimension to the story, whatever their ethnic background, whatever their religious background, somehow that gets worked into the fabric of the film, very often unconsciously. But I think it helps these stories that should be told again and again, for them to be told by different people.

By a black woman next, for instance!
Oh, I hope! Absolutely. But there’s another thing to keep in mind, and that is that sometimes when you’ve lived it, and this is a painful thing to have lived, sometimes it’s hard to tell that story. I’m not saying that black women shouldn’t tell it; I’m sure they will tell it. But I can imagine for some, they might not want to go there. I, for instance, don’t tell stories about the Jewish Holocaust. I am a Jewish white woman who has heard so many stories from relatives and people I grew up with, that it’s something that would probably be too painful for me to talk about. I’m not saying that’s the only reason I tell the story and a black woman hasn’t. I know black women will tell the story and they should. But I feel there could be an element of that; it wasn’t news to them. White women, to understand how many black women were raped in the Deep South in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s — ever since the Civil War basically — that with somewhat new for me.

Recy Taylor. Photo: The Orchard

I noticed in looking at your career that you’ve obviously made films about civil rights but also about somewhat reluctant activists, or average people who become activists. 
Yes! I’m aware of it when it’s happening, but I don’t set out to do it. I was certainly aware of the relationship between Mildred Loving and Recy Taylor. They are, to me, such noble heroes. Because they didn’t set out to change history, but they responded to what happened to them with such principle and such nobility, that history would change.

And that’s often how we think of Rosa Parks, as someone who refused to get to the back of the bus. But your film highlights how, no, she was a professional activist. 
That’s right!

Was that new to you in researching this?
Not totally new to me, because I had done enough reading about Rosa Parks in the past to know she had been an activist, but I knew it was going to be new for most people. It wasn’t until I got involved with this story that I realized that she played a specific role with Recy Taylor or about rape. One of the things to keep in mind is much of the activism at that time dealt with voting rights and those broader issues, but most of the women at the time were very involved with assault, because it was happening so frequently. Again, that to me is one of the great reveals in the film. This was happening frequently enough that you had women like Rosa Parks and others who were focused on working with these women and trying to help them. That was a very important theme in the film.

So, you were making this film before the Weinstein allegations and everything that’s happened afterwards. What do you think is the lesson or invigorating effect of this film at this moment?
I think it’s a reminder that it takes enormous courage to speak up, but some women have been speaking up for a long time.

What’s really remarkable to me is it didn’t even seem like a choice to Recy, at least the way you present it. She had no other choice, she had to speak the truth.
And that’s what she says. She actually used those words; she had to speak it. I think that comes from the fact that there is no shame for her. That’s another thing that ties her to the African-American women who were molested at that time: They knew this was systemic. They knew this came from a sense of entitlement that white men had, that it came from slavery, that this was part of the heritage of being a black woman in the days, and they didn’t feel they done anything to generate this. That sense of shame that women often have after being abused? I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly gone through things like that. I don’t think Recy Taylor felt that. I think she had the strength of her family, the strength of her religion, and most importantly she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Rape of Recy Taylor’s Director on the Oprah Effect