Shocking Truth: ‘Rustin’ is the Film Your U.S. History Class Desperately Needed!

Despite being one of the founding members of the Black History Club in high school and taking Black history courses in college, I only learned about Bayard Rustin after watching the 2003 documentary “Brother Outsider.”

This lack of awareness was not coincidental.

Rustin, the man who introduced Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to nonviolent principles and organized the March on Washington, was gay. His contributions to the civil rights movement were often overlooked because of his sexual orientation. However, efforts have been made to rectify this, particularly with the release of the 2023 film “Rustin”, starring the critically acclaimed actor Colman Domingo in the lead role.

Previously, Domingo portrayed Ralph Abernathy in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”, which also featured Rustin. Today, Domingo has the distinction of being the first Afro-Latino actor nominated for a lead actor Oscar. Additionally, he is the second openly gay man to receive a nomination for portraying an openly gay character.

The intersection of race and sexuality has subtly played a significant role in Domingo’s career. He has appeared in 2020’s Oscar-winning “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a film about a queer Black woman, and 2018’s Oscar-winning “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on a novel by James Baldwin, a gay Black man. In addition to his Oscar nomination for “Rustin,” Domingo was part of the SAG-nominated cast of “The Color Purple,” written by openly gay Black author Alice Walker.

Recently, Domingo seems to be the go-to actor when Hollywood needs to address the importance of representation. Representation is not just about gaining attention and awards, but it also provides an accurate reflection of the intertwined histories of the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.

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For many years, mainstream American media largely excluded queer people of color. Despite this, we have always been here, at the crossroads of these intersecting identities.

Walker’s “Purple” defined the 1980s, Baldwin’s “Beale Street” emerged in the 1970s, Rustin rose to prominence in the 1960s, though his civil rights work started in the 1940s; and Ma Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, was a queer Black woman born in 1886. That same year, the Carroll County Courthouse Massacre in Mississippi saw over 50 armed white men storm a courtroom and murder over 20 Black people. Despite the hostile environment she was born into, Rainey openly had relationships with women, a testament to her courage. Viola Davis received numerous award nominations for her portrayal of Rainey’s life.

It’s crucial that we tell these stories that intersect race and sexuality. We must shed light on this history, which has been hidden from us due to outdated attitudes. Hollywood should place as much importance on these overlooked figures as it does on the lives of well-known white cultural icons. As queer storytelling begins to move beyond Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS crisis, I hope we will see more stories like Rustin’s. While entertainment is important, the historical significance is paramount.

The decision to exclude figures like Rustin from history and storytelling was made intentionally. Therefore, rectifying this mistake should also be a deliberate act. Domingo’s portrayal of Rustin has brought much-needed attention to his story, but it would be even better if Rustin, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2013, was more widely recognized during Black History Month.

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His historical role still isn’t as celebrated as it should be, and perhaps it never will be. This is the consequence of minimizing contributions. Stories get lost. Acts of extraordinary courage are forgotten. Countless lives deserving of honor remain unknown.

This awards season has brought attention to an individual who should always be remembered. Perhaps Hollywood should focus on bringing to light the stories embedded in our history that deserve to be known. The history that prejudice has tried to keep hidden should be brought to the forefront.

@LZGranderson

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