By Editor, January 13th, 2018
In 2001, director Julie Dash was making a TV movie called The Rosa Parks Story, which focused on how Parks started the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Parks, an African-American seamstress, inspired that historic protest in 1955 when she refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man, per city law. In the script, Parks, then 42, explained that she simply wanted to sit down because her feet hurt. And that’s when Dash put her own foot down.
“I said, ‘That’s a myth. We are not going to say that,’” Dash tells Yahoo Entertainment. The acclaimed director (best known for her landmark independent film Daughters of the Dust) knew the truth: that Rosa Parks, an NAACP member with a decade of activism behind her, knew exactly what she was doing when she refused to stand up. Furthermore, Parks wasn’t the first African-American woman to challenge the bus laws in Montgomery. Jo Ann Robinson, a school teacher, and Claudette Colvin, a high school student, had both protested after being forcibly removed from city buses for the crime of sitting down. At Dash’s insistence, Parks’s role in the NAACP made it into the film — but 40 minutes of footage, including the scenes with Robinson and Colvin, were cut by CBS executives before the film’s Black History Month broadcast in February 2002.
Dash’s experience is just one example of how the stories of women, and black women in particular, are pushed to the margins in popular culture, and how their history-making fights against injustice are often written out of the narrative. Hollywood has always been among the worst offenders. But now, thanks to women rallying around the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp, the film industry is waking up to its own systematic misogyny. It’s bound to be a long and painful awakening. However, the movement has created an opening for women to be heard — and for the women who spoke up in the past, and paved the way for today’s reckoning, to be seen for the first time onscreen.
One of those women is Recy Taylor. That name made headlines this week thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who talked about Taylor while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony. Taylor, who fought for justice after being kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men in the Jim Crow South in 1944, died last month at the age of 97. Winfrey named her as a kind of patron saint of the #MeToo movement. What Winfrey didn’t mention, and might not even have known, is that Taylor will be honored in two upcoming feature films: a documentary directed by Nancy Buirski (in theaters this March), and a drama directed by Dash (now in pre-production).
The documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor, which premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, describes both the horrors that Taylor survived and her subsequent attempts to bring her attackers to justice. The young men who brutalized Taylor were never convicted; though Taylor was a new mother kidnapped at gunpoint on her way home from church, the all-white, all-male jury had no trouble believing the rapists’ testimony that the sex acts were consensual. That’s a painful, all-too-familiar ending — but it doesn’t take away from the impact of what Taylor did.
Watch a trailer for ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’
“When you understand the courage that [it] took to speak up, that’s the key to her story,” Buirski says. “Rape against African-American women during that period was common, and that’s not why we made the movie, although I wanted to expose that because it’s not that well known. What’s really so inspiring is Recy Taylor’s ability to speak up in 1944 when her life was in danger. That courage is fundamental to the story. It’s what inspired a legion of African-American women to support her and try to get her justice. And that’s a reminder that it’s been women all along, African-American women, who have been behind these movements.”
Indeed, it was an African-American woman, Tarana Burke, who began the #MeToo movement in 2006, 11 years before it was adopted with a hashtag by social media and Hollywood. (Burke appeared at this year’s Golden Globe Awards as Michelle Williams’s guest.) African-American women are also leading two film-industry movements aimed at ending sexual misconduct and gender inequality: the #TimesUp initiative (which counts Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes among its organizers) and the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace (chaired by Anita Hill).
Historian Danielle McGuire, whose 2010 book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance inspired both Recy Taylor films, tells Yahoo that the activism happening now is “part of a tradition of testimony and protest that began within slavery, with slave women speaking out about their masters raping and abusing them, continuing with [groundbreaking African-American journalist] Ida B. Wells talking about rape as the other side to lynching, and Recy Taylor in the ’40s, and other women in the ’50s, all before the women’s movement.” In other words, #MeToo is built on the shoulders of the African-American women who have fought against sexual assault and harassment since the founding of the United States, although their stories have been mostly absent from history books and films.
Which brings us back to Rosa Parks. In Dash’s upcoming film, the director will finally get a chance to tell Parks’s whole story, which happens to be deeply entwined with Recy Taylor’s. “This film is like a prequel to the Rosa Parks story [that everyone knows],” Dash says. “This is early Rosa. This is the real deal. It’s how Rosa Parks came into power as an activist, and how the black women’s collective of African-Americans against sexual violence and harassment in Alabama caused the Montgomery boycott.”
As a young woman, Parks was an investigator for the NAACP, specializing in cases of sexual assault against African-American women, among them Recy Taylor. In her efforts to mobilize the community and pursue legal justice for Taylor, Parks formed the Committee for Equal Justice, a group that would become the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organizers of the bus boycott. That’s why Dash’s film will open with Parks driving to Abbeville, Ala., to begin her investigation into Taylor’s assault.
“Looking back at who Rosa Parks becomes after investigating Recy’s story — that’s what makes Recy’s story compelling,” says historian Crystal Feimster, author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, who appears alongside McGuire in The Rape of Recy Taylor. “That we can link it up to the Montgomery bus boycott in a very dramatic and compelling way, that gets people to pay attention, especially because Rosa is someone that everyone thinks they know. And then you start to pull back the layers and you realize, OK, this is not just an icon. It’s a person who’s complicated and had a longer life and an activist life before that moment when she refused to give up her seat on the bus.”
By telling the stories of women like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks, the film industry has an opportunity to ground the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in history, and help drive them forward. “I think what we’re seeing in this moment is people looking to the future but also looking back, in that we’re looking for strategies,” Feimster says. She points out that historically, “speaking up is not enough,” and that activists can learn from the work that African-American women have done throughout history: giving marginalized women the tools to fight injustice, challenging entrenched legal and political systems, and creating a vision of a world without sexual violence.
During the 2017 Alabama senatorial race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore, Buirski screened The Race of Recy Taylor locally, hoping that Taylor’s story would demonstrate the power of black women to organize against a culture of sexual assault. Female African-American voters were the group that ultimately secured Jones’ victory against Moore (who had been accused of sexual misconduct by nine women). The film may or may not have directly influenced the election, but its message certainly resonated in the headlines. And the power of film is that it can bring that message — the message of #TimesUp,” #MeToo, and all that came before — to a wider audience.
“People want to write off Hollywood, but this is the place where stories are told, whether it’s fiction or fact,” Feimster says. “These are the people who shape us culturally in many ways. … So I think there is tremendous work that is being done with these films, and they will live beyond these moments.”
“We’ve grown up with ‘me too’ – now it’s ‘time’s up,’” Dash says. “Time for us to tell our stories the way we want to tell them. Now we need to tell those stories, and they need to be our voices.”