As time passes and significant events slip further and further into the mists of history, it’s inevitable that the dissemination of information about the key figures in those historical events reaches a saturation point. After all, there’s only so much authors or filmmakers can say about such American icons as Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy. As such, these same authors, filmmakers and the like often look to the lesser known, if nearly equally as important figures surrounding a particular event or era, in order to breathe new life into an otherwise tapped out subject. Such is the case with the highly illuminating documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.”
Rustin, as directors Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer’s film argues, might just be the most important figure in the American civil rights movement, among other causes, that you’ve never heard of. Already a respected and established pacifist and dedicated disciple of Gandhi’s non-violence principles by the time of the Selma bus boycotts, Rustin rises to become one of Dr. King’s most trusted advisors. Yet, as if life for this outspoken black man wasn’t difficult enough in a largely pro-segregationist 1950s America, Rustin carried the added burdens of: 1) having a brief flirtation with the American Communist Party in the late 1930s and, 2) earning a conviction on a morality charge stemming from his arrest for lewd behavior in the back seat of a car; a charge made even more damaging by the fact that, 3) Rustin was an unabashed and unashamed gay man. Taken together, these factors conspired to relegate Rustin to the background role of a largely unknown advisor.
“Brother Outsider” is a fascinating film, which pulls double duty as a sort of tour guide through the civil rights movement. We learn here that it was Rustin who organized the famous March on Washington, setting the table for Dr. King’s seminal “I have a dream!” speech. We learn of a compassionate man who, with his personal manifesto “From Protest to Politics,” was somewhat shunned later in his life by more radical black leaders such as Malcolm X for being too much of an accommodating insider. We learn of a man who fought consistently for justice and equality, regardless of whether the struggle was for Negro rights or homosexual rights.
“Brother Outsider” is a bit too much of a love fest, painting a rosy picture of this virtually unknown American who’s constantly appearing, Zelig-like, in the background of photos from famous events. The only negative comments about Rustin in the whole film come in the form of a melodramatic “FBI Reports” voice-over, intoning dangerous and slanderous half-truths over video of the copious paperwork the government had on him. These sequences are almost a parody, which distract from learning about the real flaws Rustin must have had.
With his darker secrets hidden away, secrets that could have provided us with the final layers to this influential man, we’re left with an incomplete portrait of Bayard Rustin. But thanks to the documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” we at least have that much. And for a man who’s as important and relatively unknown as Rustin was, an incomplete picture is far better than no picture at all.