A largely unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement gets overdue recognition in “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” a well-crafted and evenhanded documentary set to air as a “P.O.V.” offering Jan. 20 on PBS. Pic should attract attention — and, perhaps, spark debate — during post-broadcast exposure at niche festivals and nonprofit venues.
Co-helmers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer take an admiring yet unsentimental view of Rustin (1912-87), an eloquent and engaging African-American pacifist who was inspired by Gandhi, and in turn inspired Martin Luther King. “Our power,” he notes while helping to organize the 1956 Birmingham bus boycott, “lies in our ability to make things unworkable.”
A self-described “troublemaker” who insisted that struggles “can be won without brutalization,” Rustin began his socially conscious activism during his youth in West Chester, Pa., where he was arrested for politely but firmly declining to vacate a whites-only restaurant. Later, during World War II, he was a traveling spokesperson for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and served jail time for refusing induction into the U.S. military.
Using archival material and fresh interviews — including testimonials from at least two of his former lovers — Kates and Singer underscore Rustin’s matter-of-fact courage and self-effacing pragmatism. He was openly and unashamedly gay at a time when even many nominally progressive activists of all colors were reflexively homophobic. To prevent his sexuality from becoming an issue that might undermine his noble causes, he remained scrupulously circumspect, maintaining a deliberately low profile while working in King’s shadow.
Even so, “Brother Outsider” shows how Rustin’s sexuality — not to mention his refusal to fight in WWII — was exploited by rivals and enemies. When Democratic Party leaders wanted to avoid possibly embarrassing civil rights demonstrations led by King and Rustin at the 1960 party convention, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell was drafted to play the gay card: Powell threatened to spread rumors of a possible King-Rustin romance if the demonstrations weren’t curtailed. King buckled under the pressure.
Three years later, however, Rustin served as behind-the-scenes organizer for the 1963 March on Washington. King refused to dislodge Rustin from that position even when Sen. Strom Thurmond (among others) publicly accused Rustin of sexual perversity.
To their credit, the filmmakers are too honest to attempt a canonization of their subject. Indeed, pic reveals that, in order to maintain valuable contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Rustin took great pains to avoid open criticism of the Vietnam War. In later life, however, Rustin returned to his roots as a troublesome proselytizer for pacifism and human rights. “Brother Outsider” shows him at his happiest when he glories in being included on Richard Nixon’s White House enemies list.
Tech values are first-rate. Pic’s only questionable stylistic flourish: Hokey faux-noir sequences in which a faceless FBI agent types reports and views slides while describing “incriminating evidence” gathered against Rustin. Much more effective is a snippet from “Boycott,” an acclaimed 2001 made-for-cable movie in which Erik Dellums — the infamous Luther Mahoney of TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” — enjoyed a change-of-pace role as Rustin. //Martin Luther King’s non-violent advisor.