'Rustin' Sheds Light on the Courageous Legacy of Bayard Rustin

Julian Breece, the film's writer, highlights the activist's key role in the Civil Rights Movement and challenges stereotypes about Black communities' acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, prompting a reevaluation of long-held beliefs.

When Rustin, the biopic about activist Bayard Rustindrops on Netflix Nov. 17, the man who orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington will finally get his long overdue flowers.

Rustin was a lifelong freedom fighter who, like icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lewis, protested for civil rights, frequently being arrested and/or beaten. He was also, as Colman Domingo shows in his fantastic performance as Rustin, openly gay––a particularly courageous way of living when homosexuality was a criminal act. While the film is a rich exploration of the man and all he had to do to make the march happen, Rustin additionally makes a subtle point that could go easily overlooked: the Black community has long been more accepting of LGBTQ people than conventional wisdom says.

“What I learned,” says Julian Breece, who spent years researching Rustin and interviewing people who knew him before writing the script with Dustin Lance Black, “is that Black people were more accepting of sexual variants and gender variants prior to the Civil Rights Movement. So the Civil Rights Movement, and all of its respectability politics, were fashioned in order to make us palatable to the white mainstream; we had to prove ourselves worthy of integration. We [queer people] had to silence ourselves for the greater good, basically.”

Rustin opens in 1960, when the activist, in his late 40s, had become a well-respected player on the Civil Rights scene. He was a good friend and mentor to King then, too, and was close with King’s wife, Coretta, who herself was an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian people until she died. True to historical events, Rustin shows how the elder activist tried to convince his charismatic preacher friend to join a demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, which angered Black power players aligned with Democrats––namely Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (played in the movie by Jeffrey Wright). Powell famously threatened to spread the lie that Rustin and King were secretly lovers, which in turn caused King to disassociate from Rustin and their relationship to sour for some time. Likewise, Rustin’s 1953 arrest for hooking up with two dudes in a car later became a weapon Powell and others tried to use against Rustin to silence him once the March on Washington gained momentum––part of the reason Rustin took more behind-the-scenes roles and ultimately became overlooked in history.

Yet, as cruel as those incidents were, most of Rustin’s colleagues respected him. The film shows how many other civil rights leaders, including Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) and longtime collaborator A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), didn’t make an issue of his sexuality; it only became an issue when other Black leaders knew it could be used to paint him as a deviant and derail the bigger goal of desegregation. Rustin notes how his grandmother, who raised him, was unbothered when he came out to her as a high school kid in the 1930s.

“He lived his truth,” Breece says. “He lived out his desire like any straight man would. The men in that movie, and I think that was so important for me to portray, they didn't hate him because he was gay. They respected him.”

This is an important realization because it counters the pervasive narrative that Black people are uniformly homophobic. Don’t get it twisted: our community certainly has a ways to go in making a safe space for queer people; one needs only look at the alarming statistics about violence against Black trans women or the reactions to Dwight Howard’s private sexual escapades to see there is very much lingering bias among Black people towards their non-straight skinfolk. But the reality is that queer Black people have been accepted, welcomed, and even celebrated in their communities for generations, from Ma Rainey to Little Richard to Sylvester to countless non-famous people living everyday life in cities and towns.

If anything, Rustin shows how Black people can be manipulated into falling for divide-and-conquer tactics––the strategy George W. Bush used in his 2004 re-election campaign when he targeted Black churches on an anti-gay marriage platform, appealing to the most conservative parts of the community to drum up votes while doing nothing of substance for the Black community as a whole.

The ‘Black people are homophobic’ narrative is so pervasive that Black people even believe it about themselves––even if we can look at our own families, friend circles, and playlists and see LGBTQ people we accept as people without issue, which is what Rustin for the most part depicts. Breece hopes that people who see it not only come away respecting Bayard Rustin more, but rejecting negative stereotypes about our community as a whole. “Part of the white patriarchal mainstream was aggressive homophobia. So there were parts of us that we had to cut out and push to the fringe. And he said, ‘I'm going to push my way back into where I have been pushed out, to do this thing because it’s just the best for humanity.’” The lesson, Breece says? “Let’s consider who we're pushing out.”

Rustin comes to Netflix on Nov. 17.

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