An Interview with the Makers of Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
By State of the Re:Union
Five years in the making and the winner of more than 20 awards in the U.S. and abroad, Brother Outsider is a feature-length documentary portrait of Bayard Rustin. Described as “potent and persuasive” (Los Angeles Times), “beautifully crafted” (Boston Globe), “complex and nuanced” (Chicago Reader), and “poignant” (TIME), the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast nationally on PBS; it is currently airing on Logo/MTV. Filmmakers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer shared the following reflections with State of the Re:Union:
SOTRU: What prompted you to make Brother Outsider?
Nancy and Bennett: We felt that more people needed to know the story of this extraordinary American, who had been marginalized in the telling of civil rights history.
SOTRU: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Bayard Rustin?
Nancy and Bennett: That Rustin had been targeted by the FBI as early as the late 1930s — and that he not only conducted sit-ins at restaurants in the 1940s, but trained several generations of young Americans to work for social justice, starting twenty years before the Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
SOTRU: Do you feel his homosexuality kept him from getting the same kind of recognition that other Civil Rights icons received?
Nancy and Bennett: Yes! Even within the civil rights movement, Rustin suffered from political attacks that targeted him for being gay.
SOTRU: What was the biggest obstacle in making Brother Outsider?
Nancy and Bennett: Making a film about someone who consciously kept to the background was a challenge at times, but we scoured the globe and managed to unearth some amazing archival footage in Africa, India, England and France, among other places. Raising money is always a challenge for documentary films; in this case, Rustin’s relative obscurity may have made it harder to raise money. We also struggled to condense the details of his long and epic life into 84 minutes.
SOTRU: Did you find that there were misconceptions about Rustin’s work and if so, what were they?
Nancy and Bennett: Rustin did become more conservative as he got older. He certainly became more of a political insider; some people argued that he sold out, while others found his latter-day pragmatism quite useful and appropriate. We tried to present this as a debate within the film — something that viewers could mull over, rather than praising or condemning him. This was especially important to us in our presentation of Rustin’s views on the Vietnam War.
SOTRU: How is Rustin’s message pertinent to the present?
Nancy and Bennett: We believe that Rustin’s vision of social justice and his belief in nonviolence remain as important today they were at the height of the civil rights movement. Rustin never wavered in his conviction in the interconnectedness of all people — a message we urgently need to hear today, particularly in a country waging two wars simultaneously. He also believed in the efficacy of social protest, having started working against racial segregation at the age of 15 (long before the modern civil rights movement). And he was still working for civil rights 37 years later, when the Civil Rights Act finally passed.
SOTRU: He was a man that wasn’t afraid to take unpopular stances even within crowds that were considered ideologically similar. Did you find detractors in your research and did you include them in your film?
Nancy and Bennett: There are a lot of things to say about this question, but even his friends and allies say critical things about Rustin within the film. We also included the debates he held with both Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael, to represent those who disagreed with him. We did interview several detractors, but ultimately the obstacles that Rustin faced in politics and society spoke more eloquently against him than these detractors. We tried hard not to make Rustin into a plaster saint, by including both serious debate and serious attacks on him, and by exploring some of his many unpopular views, particularly his refusal to speak out against the Vietnam War, as some of his pacifist colleagues thought he should.
SOTRU: What’s the one thing you want people to know about Bayard Rustin?
Nancy and Bennett: His life represents sixty years of committed activism. We want people to know that so many public figures, including Barack Obama, stand on the shoulders of Bayard Rustin, though they rarely acknowledge his contributions to the struggle for human and civil rights.
SOTRU: How can people get Brother Outsider?
SOTRU: What’s next for you guys?
Nancy and Bennett: We are working together to bring Brother Outsider to new audiences, including schools, community groups and corporate diversity trainings in the U.S. and abroad. Additionally, Nancy Kates is in production for Regarding Susan Sontag, a feature-length portrait of the late writer, www.sontagfilm.org. Bennett Singer is at work on a feature-length documentary about voting in America; that film, hosted by Daily Show veteran Mo Rocca, uses irreverent humor to highlight the ways in which America’s electoral system undermines democracy.