With the recent release of a new Netflix film portraying the life of Bayard Rustin, East Bay Express talked with Nancy Kates, director of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003), the documentary that in part helped to inspire the new narrative film and further the cause of recognizing the civil rights leader.
“He was a really important behind-the-scenes organizer in the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Kates said during a recent phone conversation. “Rustin had been an advisor to King since the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1956, [but] he wasn’t allowed to be in the forefront of the civil rights movement because he was seen as something of a liability because he was gay, and that could be used against him.”
Being gay at the time could mean trouble at work, with the law or worse. Even more so for a man involved in peace and civil rights movements since the ’40s. The recognition Rustin has received in recent years is thanks in large part to the work of LGBTQ+-focused storytellers and researchers like Kates, who herself identifies as LGBTQ+.
“There’s something a bit gratifying about the fact that our film came out 20 years ago,” Kates said. “And I don’t think [Netflix] would have made a film if they hadn’t seen our film.”
While making the documentary, Kates learned everything about Rustin she could, including tracking down arrest records in Pasadena and visiting London to interview people who had worked with him. In all, the film’s researchers accessed more than 100 archives worldwide. It’s a level of detail that a narrative film cannot quite touch. Yet fiction has its own claim to truth.
Susan Sontag—the subject of Kates’ 2014 film, Regarding Susan Sontag—said she “preferred the form of truth that happened in fiction rather than nonfiction,” which Kates quoted during our call. Kates went on to say, “You know that there are truths in both arenas, they’re just very different from each other.”
Most important is that more people will know about Rustin’s incredible journey as an openly gay man in the ’60s who posthumously received the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. While the documentary has been widely viewed, it didn’t have the same reach as a Netflix feature film.
“Well, let me just back up a little bit,” Kates said when asked about the impact of her film. “I think that our film was hugely resonant both for queer communities and for African American communities. And other communities of color, frankly, and that feels like a powerful thing … to raise this figure up.”
She continued, “I know that our film helped raise his visibility in the queer community quite a bit. For example, [there are] plaques in the ground on the sidewalk in the Castro for famous queer people. There’s one for Oscar Wilde and there’s one for Virginia Woolf … and there’s one for Bayard Rustin. And I don’t know if that would have happened without our movie.”
She believes her documentary made an impact on society when it was initially released.
“[M]y experience of our film is that at the time it came out … it was hugely embraced by the queer community [and only] somewhat embraced by the African American community,” Kates said. “And I think that has changed in recent times [and] with this feature film these incredible African American actors are proudly telling the story.”
She added, “When I was a kid, nobody talked about anyone being gay like in school or anything, and the fact that our film is shown in schools and colleges is amazing to me.” She is, in fact, impressed that the country is again having “a conversation about the importance of this Black gay man.”
As members of the LGBTQ+ community face the consequences of organized pushback against established queer and trans rights, and incidents of violence against trans people are up, an intersectional American hero like Bayard Rustin is a reason for hope, a reminder that the fight for dignity and justice matters.
Watch ‘Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin’ at brotheroutsider.org/watch; 48-hour rental or free with a public or university library card. DVDs also available for purchase.
The new film, ‘Rustin,’ is streaming now on Netflix.