Posted: 05/10/2011


Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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“We need in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Bayard RustinThe Brother Outsider is a documentary that covers the extraordinary life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin was an activist and a gay, Black man born in Pennsylvania in 1912. Rustin was the architect behind the esteemed 1963 March on Washington, after his involvement with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Communist Party—all of which were followed by the FBI—ended.

He came to Atlanta after he had been arrested many times for his political beliefs but finally jailed in 1953 on charges of sexual perversion after police found him in Pasadena, California, in the back seat of a car with two males. He helped Dr. King with the nonviolent movement, noting that King’s movement wasn’t completely nonviolent, since armed men were guarding his home and he also had a gun in the home.

The documentary shares that Rustin was not only a member of the Black community but also an influential member of the LGBT community. Five years in the making, Brother Outsider illuminates the public and private lives of Rustin, a visionary activist and strategist who has been called the “invisible man” and “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has garnered more than 25 international awards and honors, including eight Best Documentary prizes and seven Audience Favorite awards at film festivals, along with the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary and an NAACP Image Award nomination.

The film has been shown in hundreds of high schools and colleges and by a variety of civil rights and human rights organizations, including The National Black Justice Coalition, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also been screened at the Kennedy Center, the United Nations, The Library of Congress and in numerous countries around the globe, including India, South Africa, Poland, England, Italy, Iceland, South Korea and Kazakhstan.
In a 2010 review of the best historical documentaries of the last decade, Michael Fox of the San Francisco Film Society described Brother Outsider as a “mesmerizing eye-opener that inspires audiences to carry on Rustin’s worldwide crusade against injustice, discrimination and poverty.”

Indeed Brother Outsider is an inspirational film, as Rustin was tireless in his quest for equality for all men, Black and white, gay and straight, young and old. I couldn’t help but imagine that in the 60’s when he was working with Dr. King that it was probably best that Rustin stayed in the background. It was hard enough with the struggle for civil rights, and I’m sure that if the majority of people knew that Rustin was gay, problems would have just been insurmountable for King and others in his contingent.

The movie is very educational and very moving. It was interesting to see how it seemed from birth that Rustin bucked the system and dared to live his life as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Brother Outsider reveals the price that Rustin paid for this honesty, chronicling both the triumphs and setbacks of his remarkable 60-year career.
The film includes commentary by, among others, Andrew Young, Eleanor Holmes Norton and two of Rustin’s partners, one of whom was with him for the last ten years of his life, before his death in 1987.

Brother Outsider is available on DVD. Visit for more information.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago

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