film note: Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Directed by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer
1h 23min; Season 15, Episode 9 of P.O.V.; USA, 2003

It took me forever but I finally snagged a copy of this essential PBS documentary about the civil rights organizer, Bayard Rustin, and it’s uplifted me in ways that the overrated garbage getting touted for Oscars never could.

I already knew that Rustin taught Martin Luther King about non-violence and that he was the principal organizer of the first March on Washington. What I’m happy to be reminded of, as to the latter, was that he did it on 3×5 cards in his back pocket, before computers, before the Internet. He was also a talented singer — a crooner, even — and a prolific essay writer. I’m not surprised to discover the ontological significance of his statement during the first LGBT March On Washington that gay rights had become the barometer for whether or not a country or a people or an organization were serious about human rights in general. Rustin was an unashamed, out black gay man, a Quaker and a pacifist in the 40s. He was a singular individual. And he debated Malcolm X to a standstill. It’s no small triumph that Malcolm became more like Rustin before he was assassinated. All of that provides material for this documentary.

But only 9 people on Letterboxd have seen this film (Update: the number now stands at 60), the only feature length documentary about one of the most important American activists in history. It took me FOREVER to torrent it. It seemed no one wanted to see it.

Why is that?

This film doesn’t go far enough in exploring the reasons but it is suggestive and it goes far beyond the fact that he was unapologetically gay. My feeling is that Bayard Rustin was one of those few humans whose morality and personhood was beholden only to himself, that no single movement or organization could contain what he wanted to be and do in his life. Few understood him although many felt his influence and relied on his passion. He proved that, whatever your impact in the world, you have to make choices to become a celebrity, and he apparently didn’t want that.

One of my favorite archival shots in the film is Rustin walking behind Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing at the March on Washington. Baez has lost her place in the song. Dylan’s eyes are on the lyrics in front of him. Rustin is striding behind them, smoking a cigarette, with a satisfied grin on his face as he watches the crowd respond.

Amiri Baraka called him a pervert and an accomplice of slavers. Richard Nixon and the FBI considered him an enemy of the state.

He’s my kind of hero.

Note: Since I posted this on Letterboxd in 2014, with no likes, Brother Outsider has become available on DVD.

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