Queer Film: Rustin spotlights a forgotten gay civil rights trailblazer


Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and Johnny Ramey as Elias in Rustin (Photo: David Lee/NETFLIX)

In the rich tapestry of Black LGBTQI+ history, a name that should shine far brighter than it does is Bayard Rustin. An openly gay man, Rustin was a brilliant American civil rights mastermind whose influential work as an activist altered the course of history.

Confronting both racism and homophobia in his life, Rustin’s legacy is far-reaching, encompassing not only the American civil rights movement but also ground-breaking contributions to LGBTQI+ rights.

His story, often overshadowed by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, is now poised to take centre stage in a powerful new biographical film titled Rustin.

Discovering Bayard Rustin – a forgotten hero.

Born in 1912, Rustin was the architect of 1963’s historic March on Washington. This saw more than a quarter of a million people marching for the civil and economic rights of African Americans. It’s also where King delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rustin challenged authority and never apologised for who he was, and he also played a pivotal role in the New York City Gay Rights Bill in the 1980s.

His life’s work exemplified the values of resilience, equality, and the belief that change could be achieved through nonviolence. His contributions to LGBTQI+ rights laid the groundwork for a lot of the equal rights progress we see today.

Rustin not only challenged stereotypes but also promoted intersectional activism, emphasising the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. His story is a reminder of the importance of recognising those who have paved the way for LGBTQI+ rights and to celebrate their contributions.

In 2013, for his activism, Rustin was posthumously bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States.

Then-President Barack Obama said at the time: “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honour Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”

A film about the commitment to freedom

Rustin, the highly anticipated biographical drama about Bayard Rustin, is directed by George C Wolfe, known for his work on the acclaimed 2020 drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s made by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company.

The cast is led by Tony Award nominee and Emmy Award winner Colman Domingo in the title role. It also includes talents like Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Jeffrey Wright, and Audra McDonald, ensuring a stellar cinematic experience.

Because he was forced to live with the constraints and prejudices of the time as a gay man —including beatings and arrests— Rustin’s role in the Civil Rights movement was not widely publicised and thus the true significance of his contribution has been muted.

Wolfe says that one of the reasons he wanted to make the film now was to highlight someone who was deeply committed to democracy and freedom, a commitment that is rare to see today.

“At a time where you look around and wonder, ‘Is that leadership? Is that being responsible?’ It’s so wonderful to celebrate somebody for whom that was their life.”

Wolfe adds that the most important theme that he wanted to dramatise was “that smart people and passionate people can do extraordinary things, that shame is something that we all dance with. And ultimately exorcising shame from our existence empowers us.

See Rustin with a sense of LGBTQI+ Pride

Rustin premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on 31 August 2023 sparking acclaim for Domingo’s performance. Variety said that the actor “embodies the icon so profoundly it’s hard to believe he wasn’t possessed by his spirit from the heavens,” and asserted that he had become an “instant best actor Oscar contender.”

Rustin is scheduled for a select cinema release on 3 November 2023, followed by its streaming release on 17 November on Netflix, marking the date of the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin’s story is one of hope and the possibility of change. It provides an opportunity to learn about a hidden hero of LGBTQI+ history who stood at the intersection of multiple struggles for justice and equality. When Rustin hits Netflix in November, make it a point to see it with Pride!

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