“Rustin” / Photo by David Lee/Netflix

Reflecting on ‘Rustin’

George C. Wolfe’s film, “Rustin,” garnered 10s across the board as an illuminating portrayal of the pivotal activist and the civil rights movement to which he gave utter allegiance. It bestows overdue recognition upon Bayard Rustin, the Black gay genius who organized the movement’s defining act, the 1963 March on Washington.

Wolfe’s account of Rustin’s work and personal life is the kind of story that rarely reaches a wide audience. It is not the stock civil rights saga in which all the Blacks are hetero and noble and the whites either rabid racists or complicit cowards save for the exceptional white savior. In this tale, Black people, Black men especially, are shown dually as oppressed and oppressor. As one who was both Black and homosexual, Rustin contended with intersections of racism and homophobia, respectively, perpetrated by white and Black people.

Rustin possessed vision, wisdom, skills that suited his efforts, innate flair, and a compelling presence, all signature gifts of a born leader. By the time of the film’s setting, he had spent two decades fighting for racial justice and nonviolent social change, including his mentoring of a young Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott. A flashback scene from 1955 shows Rustin getting arrested in Pasadena, California, for having sex with men in a car, and the resulting local news report. This incident was used to brand him as an embarrassing liability to the very movement he helped build.

Rustin was committed to his people’s liberation as well as his own as a Black gay man who dared to live his life without closets or beards. Wolfe’s coverage of Rustin’s romantic life shows us how Rustin and other queer men of the era negotiated intimacy across a cultural minefield of stigma and criminalization. Rustin has an uncommitted involvement with Tom, a white college student and movement ally who serves as his personal assistant. When Rustin mocks Tom’s stress-relieving marijuana as illegal, Tom quips, “So are we.” Rustin takes up with a closeted organizer, Elias (a fictional character), who asks to be taught “how to not be afraid.” A planned rendezvous at a gay bar is intercepted by a police raid, a common tactic of the time — one that would trigger the Stonewall uprising. But this is 1963, and the converging radical fires that branded this decade were still being lit. While Elias finds sensual salvation in their intimacy, he dreads the moment that his nature will be exposed. By contrast, Rustin no longer fears the heterosexual gaze and invites Elias to live as his true nature calls. Gently, he tells him, “How can you speak of love when your heart is disconnected from your flesh?”

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and white supremacist senator Strom Thurmond wedged Rustin’s sexuality to undermine his work (Powell) and the success of the movement (Thurmond). Jeffrey Wright gives a surly rendering of Powell as a jealous narcissist who resents King’s ascent to unrivaled acclaim. He threatens to circulate allegations of a sexual liaison between Rustin and King to prevent King from leading a protest at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Powell’s ploy works, King capitulates. Three years later, Thurmond draws from the same playbook in his effort to derail the upcoming March on Washington by labeling Rustin a pervert and a Communist.

Colman Domingo’s emotive portrayal conveyed how deeply Rustin needed his people to love him, even as his refusal to bow remained steadfast. In an early scene, he appears unshaken when a belligerent young activist quips that he “sashayed away” into irrelevance. Yet his eyes cannot hide the blues beneath the bravura. Days before the march, King, Wilkins, and other leaders held a press conference denouncing Thurmond’s attempt to malign Rustin. As if he feels his brothers’ embrace through the TV screen, Rustin’s tears well up and he gasps, overtaken by the surprise show of loyalty from estranged comrades. It is arguably the film’s most poignant moment, no less moving than the culminating scene of the march.

The visibility of Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) and Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) attested to the reality of women’s leadership and the sexism that blunted their power. Baker (who actually co-founded the SCLC with Rustin) is shown advising King to endorse a protest and encouraging Rustin to reconnect with King. The real Baker went on record noting how King and the other men would dismiss her ideas because of her gender. Hedgeman chides the men for initially excluding women from the speakers’ roster at the march.  According to records, two women Daisy Bates a journalist/activist and legendary artist Josephine Baker spoke, and quite memorably Mahalia Jackson (who was upper room royalty) sang.

Wolfe’s history indicts a tradition of Black activism self-sabotaged by sexism and homophobia within a repressive climate that transcends racial differences. Powell and Thurmond are polar political opposites who manipulate anti-gay biases mutually held by Black and white constituencies. NAACP president Roy Wilkins co-signs on Powell’s ploy referring to Rustin’s sexuality as “the unmentionable.” Even King himself accedes to Powell’s gay-baiting threat and betrays his mentor. In pushing Rustin and their women comrades to the margin, these men weakened the movement. In emulating the ways of cisgender, heterosexual white men in power, they preserved the status quo and forestalled radical change.

An expanse of six decades passed between this film and its story, each framed by the possibilities and constrictions of its era. “Rustin,” a major motion picture whose director, subject, and lead actor are all Black and queer, signifies the multifront progress achieved in that timespan.

Rustin was not out by today’s standards of public self-identification, nor did he hide or deny who he was. He enjoyed companionship and sexual freedom through his last days at 75. After he died, no hetero comrades touted his reputation as a ladies’ man to Jet Magazine as they did Max Robinson, the Black news anchor who died of AIDS-related complications. In daring to “own [his] power” through his personal life and public advocacy, he was a full-spectrum revolutionary. He embodied an immovable commitment to liberation as a Black-bodied, queer-bodied man who knew what it cost to be free.

“Rustin” resonates for Black queer folk differently from any other audience because his story is, in the ways that matter most, our story. Black queer people know something about allegiance and the keeping of secrets. We still risk rejection, condemnation, and death if we dare act as ourselves and say yes to spirit and flesh. We give our talents and dollars over to institutions that accept our contributions, yet refuse to honor our full presence. Our families depend on our loyalties whether we speak our full names or not. Yet in the pit of their stomach, in the marrow of their soul, our people remain unsettled about us as long as they refuse to reconcile what they want to be with what they see in the mirror. A friend once remembered this of Rustin: “Wherever he was, he stood at a rakish angle to it. Rustin, the man and the film, presents instruction and begs introspection about the power of a rakish angle.