Out filmmaker Bennett Singer is the co-director and co-producer, with Nancy D. Kates, of the critically acclaimed 2003 film, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, about the gay, African-American civil-rights activist whom many consider the main organizer behind the historic 1963 March on Washington.
Rustin, who was also an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., was born in 1912 and died in 1987.
Using a vast trove of archival footage, Brother Outsider distills the complex life of a multifaceted and enigmatic personality. It has been making the rounds as part of several centennial events on Rustin's life and career. Singer, originally from Chicago but now based in New York, will be in town for a March 28 screening at the Chicago Cultural Center. He spoke to Windy City Times via phone.
Yasmin Nair: What inspired you to make this film?
Bennett Singer: I had worked for almost five years at Blackside, the company that produced Eyes on the Prize, the 14-hour PBS documentary on the history of the civil-rights movement, and it was while I was working as a researcher on that project that I first learned about Rustin. I was struck both by his incredible achievements as well as by the fact that he seemed to have been erased from history.
I teamed up with another filmmaker friend, Nancy Kates, some years later and together we set out to make a film whose mission was really to rediscover Rustin and to bring him from the margins back to the center and to look at both his accomplishments as a strategist and organizer and mentor as well as his ongoing relevance in the 21st century.
YN: What specifically sparked your interest or led you to him?
Singer: Well, I came across him in the process of doing research on the March on Washington. I had never heard of him and I think it was this realization that a gay man who was really remarkably open about being gay in the '40s and '50s and '60s had been at the center of the civil-rights movement. That certainly sparked my interest.
And then the more I learned, the more intrigued I was to think about and really probe, get a clear understanding of the way in which Rustin's openness and honesty about being gay made him a target not only for opponents of the civil-rights movement but even for other civil-rights leaders. It was that intersection, I think, of his work for social justice at the same time that he was being persecutedI don't think that's an over-statementfor his own honesty within a movement for social justice [ that interested me ] .
YN: Right, that's the irony there. You must have had to wade through a huge amount of material, and I was struck by the footage at the very beginning of the film, from his high school years. You found old black-and-white film of him in the middle of a football game. How did you find that and so much more of what seems to be a fair amount of archival material given that, as you point out, so much of his life had been erased from history?
Singer: Yes, the football footageit's miraculous [ laughs ] that we managed to find that. We had researchers who were literally scouring the globe and we found material from India and Africa and various private individuals' collections and peace movement and labor movement archives. In an attempt to be thorough, we called his high school and asked, if by chance, they had any photographs or old yearbooks or footage of him as a high school student in the late 1920s. It was quite a surprise and a miraculous one when they told us that they, indeed, had footage of him playing football.
I think that was about 1929, and that really brought that piece of him to life, to be able to show him as an athlete. As a high school student, he really was both a star athlete and an orator who won a speaking prize and was really beloved by his classmates and teachers. As we say in the film, he told his grandmother, while still a high school student, that he was gay and I think that openness, even in the late 1920s, was quite remarkable.
But, yes, the footage: When we set out to make the film, I honestly wasn't sure that we could make a film about Rustin, given that he did make a conscious effort to stay behind the scenes, and I wasn't clear that there would be enough footage or photographs to tell his story. I was very pleasantly surprised that we managed to find as much as we did.
The other great archival element is the music. He really did use music as a central part of his activism, and he did quite a bit of singing, and we used those songs as much as we could. Not just to show that he was such a good singer but also to tell his story. There's an uncanny way in which the lyrics of those songs actually relate to his own life and really serve as a narration that allowed us to use his own voice to tell pieces of his story through the singing.
YN: This was a man with an extraordinarily complex history, and with many facets to him. Yet, the film has a clear focus and narrative arc. How would you describe that arc, and how did you come to a decision about how to present it?
Singer: Honestly, it was a challenge. We had 300 hours of material and we had conducted phone interviews with about 200 people and then narrowed that list down to about 20, whom we filmed. There really was a lot of material and a lot of facets, as you say, to weave together. We did want to show, to the extent we could, what a complex vision he had, an intertwined vision in which he was working for racial equality and economic justice and equality for LGBT Americans and I think he saw those as very connected and interwoven.
Certainly, the economic aspect of it which has gained so much relevance with Occupy Wall Street and recent events was very central to his work and his mentor, A. Philip Randolph, imparted to him the notion that social change can't be reduced simply to race; it's a matter of economic and class. And that there's potential there for such a broad coalition if people come together based on their economic interests. So that would be a way for the labor movement in which rustin was very focused and connected to, to become an ally of the civil-rights movement, and he certainly devoted a lot of attention to that alliance.
In terms of the arc, we wanted to develop that sense of his complexity and the intersections of his identities and I think that there was this core of openness and honesty from his days as a high school student which both liberated him and also made him a target. So we look at both the price he paid for his openness as a gay man but also the ways in which that openness really set him free, was a form of liberation. I think that was an arc that we wanted to develop.
YN: Given his complexity and the fact that he did live for a long time and was involved in so many different movements, there's also an arc to his politics.
YN: Just the left aloneforget even the rightwould have some issues. When you screen the film, what kid of responses do you get and how do you respond to them?
Singer: It's true that people come away with varying reactions to Rustin's life and to various pieces of his work, and certainly folks who are committed to Pacifism have a lot of issues with the stance he took on Vietnam. He was opposed to the Vietnam War but he didn't speak out as forcefully against it as Dr. King did, for tactical reasons. As we show in the film, he felt that that would jeopardize the alliance with LBJ and would potentially backfire in terms of ongoing civil-rights movement, and the connections between the Democratic Party and the civil-rights movement. So, he justified that position with a tactical reason and we try to portray that in the film as well as the fact that, for some people, it's a betrayal.
But many of the people who watch the film, particularly high school students and young people usually come away with the notion that Rustin is a role model or a hero. They seem to say that despite differences they might have on specific issues, when you look at the overall arc of his life, it's one of courage and bravery and this insistence on continuing to fight and continuing to struggle and to push for social justice, even when he was taking an unpopular stance or when he was not fully supported by members of the civil-rights movement.
I think on that level he can serve as a source of inspiration for activists, even if they don't agree with all of the choices that Rustin made. In retrospect, there is the notion fact that for 60 years, he was committed to social change and the notion, as he says in the film, of putting one's body on the line and taking a stand. On that level there has been a pretty pervasive response among many audience members that there's something inspiring and something that can really resonate with 21st-century issues.
YN: I was also curious about Rustin's relationship with the African-American community and its relationship to homosexuality. Obviously, in an 83-minute film, it's very difficult to distill and even address everything. But in the context of the conversations going on today about homophobia and race, where there are controversies, I was struck by one scene in particular.
You have the voiced words of Amiri Baraka criticizing Rustin in an open letter with the words, "Bayard, when you denounce us nationalists for teaching hate, based on your white folks' analysis, you are actually functioning as the big gun of white oppression. ... You are a slaveship profiteer, a paid pervert for the racist unions, and I feel it necessary to expose you." Those words are illustrated by a photo of Rustin standing next to an African-American man holding up a sign with the words, "Fag! Bayard."
Singer: It was a remarkable image in that there's Bayard, very calm and very poised, standing right next to this guy who's denouncing him with a blatant, bigoted message of "Fag." And so it seems related to the idea that Amiri Baraka was conveying in his open letter.
YN: You also show Stokely Carmichael [ Black Panther leader ] debating him. That reminded me of Huey Newton's statement about homosexuals, where he went beyond simply preaching tolerance and even analyzed the reasons for homophobia. I'm wondering what it means that the Black response to Rustin, especially towards the end, come across as very potently homophobic, but there's a different, more complex reality outside the film.
Singer: The debate with Stokely Carmichaelthere isn't overt homophobia there, maybe within the broader responses of some people in the Black Power movement. I would say certainly in recent years it's been heartening to see the ways in which Civil Rights and African-American groups have used Rustin and the story as a way to address homophobia in the Black community.
For instance, at their convention last year, the NAACP did a session precisely on homophobia in the African-America community and used Rustin's story as a springboard to look at the history and the present-day aspect of that. It's been also really heartening to take the film to historically Black colleges. There is often a perception that there is no overlap of Black and gay issues, which denies the reality of Black lesbian and gay people who are often invisible in many of our conversations.
YN: On those lines, does the film also resonate for white gay communities, where many often decide that there are no Black gay people or no support for gays and lesbians in the Black community?
Singer: Yes, absolutely; the film has been very warmly received in LGBT communities, at gay film festivals and gay events. Among white viewers there's definitely this sense of his courage and integrity coming thorough. It's healthy to see the kind of bridges that his story can create. Showing the film and reflecting on his life has been a way for Black and white and other LGBTs of color to think about common grounds.
YN: You mentioned, at an earlier Chicago History Museum discussion, that one of your favorite scenes was the clip of Rustin walking behind Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as they start to sing on the stage during the March. I liked that too, because he seems so oblivious to these two huge celebrities just inches away, and is the epitome of cool, in his dark glasses as he nonchalantly smokes a cigarette. What makes you like that scene so much, and what are your other favorites?
Singer: Well, there's that, and the scene with Mahalia Jackson, where he's standing next to her and mouthing and singing the words. That just captures the joy that he was feeling on that day and there's something in that scene that you can only understand by watching it. It's impossible to describe in print, whereas seeing it in a film clip really does epitomize so much of Rustin's sense of spirit, so I like it for that reason.
The clip of him walking by Joan Baez and Bob Dylanit would ordinarily have been something that nobody focuses on, just a guy walking behind the talent, the main focus. That's also the embodiment of what Rustin embodied or represented, the man behind the scenes who, once you look behind the metaphorical curtain, you realize that the March on Washington might not have materialized without him.
That he was central to bringing Gandhi's ideas and tactics of non-violence to America and shaping the course of the civil-rights movement and really mentoring and guiding Martin Luther King in the application of non-violence. As we show in the film, when King and Rustin first met, King still had guns in his house and armed guards. It really was Rustin and some of his other colleagues who persuaded King to embrace nonviolence fully. King went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and that is a really key part of Rustin's legacy, that role he played.
YN: Do you think there's been a shift in the understanding and recognition of Rustin since the time you made the film and if so, why?
Singer: Well, yes, the film has been seen by millions but there have also been three or four biographies, a couple of children's books; his high school was renamed after him, after some controversy. There is a sense of him being rediscovered, there has been that shift in recognizing what he did and his ongoing relevance for anyone involved in social justice and change.
I think the [ film ] sparked a new appreciation of his central but previously overlooked role in the shaping of the civil-rights movement, which transformed America, which led to, among other things, the election of the first African-American president which, until recently people were saying was impossible. There's the overturning of [ "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ] and the progress that's being made with same sex marriage and other aspects of equality for gay and lesbian Americans. I think his work and his life and the example he set and the stances he took and the intersections that he represents all have contributed to a new appreciation of the role he played in making America a better place and in advancing the agenda for social justice.
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin will be screened Wed., March 28, at 6:30 p.m., at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. See www.ExploreChicago.org for info. The screening of Brother Outsider is sponsored by The Legacy Project and co-hosted by Affinity Community Services in recognition of Bayard Rustin's induction to The Legacy Walk this October. ( For more information visit legacyprojectchicago.org/BAYARD_RUSTIN_TRIBUTE.html ) . The Q&A with filmmaker Bennett Singer will be followed by a dessert reception courtesy of Ann Sather restaurant.
In next week's issue of Windy City Times, there will be a piece on the book I Must Resist: The Life and Letters of Bayard Rustin as well as the Bayard Rustin Centennial Conference, which will take place at the University of Illinois at Chicago March 30-31. Find out more about the conference at www.uic.edu/depts/quic/gsc/bayardrustin.html .
Centennial events are listed at www.rustin.org .