Netflix biopic to focus on Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin speaks before a demonstration in 1964.
NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM AND THE SUN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Matt Tracy

An upcoming Netflix biopic will highlight the life of the late gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin.

The film will recap the tumultuous life journey of an individual who faced fierce adversity as an out gay Black man. Despite playing a key role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington and serving as an influential advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin was long ostracized and discredited.

In recent years, however, Rustin has started earning more respect long after his death in 1987. Governor Gavin Newsom of California pardoned Rustin last year for a 1953 sodomy-related conviction and former President Barack Obama posthumously honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

The film will be produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions and directed by out gay director George C. Wolfe, who drew praise for his work on “Ma Rainey’s black Bottom.”

Dustin Lance Black, who nabbed an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the 2008 Harvey Milk film “Milk,” will serve as the film’s writer. Out gay producer Bruce Cohen will also work on the film.

The film represents the latest example of a broader effort to shine a light on Rustin’s life and work more than three decades after he died. Rustin was also the subject of an episode on HBO Max’s four-part show “Equal,” which examines key moments in LGBTQ history.

In 2019, audio of Rustin’s interview with the Washington Blade in the 1980s was aired on the Making Gay History podcast. In those recordings, Rustin opened up about the intersections of his identity as a gay man and a Black man, explaining that he was driven to focus on his full identity as a result of his life experiences.

He pointed to a time when a mother told a child to avoid touching him because he was Black — and that incident became a motivating factor for him.

“It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare my homosexuality, because if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice,” he said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Rustin also did not shy away from his feelings regarding the way he was treated during the civil rights movement — and how his sexuality became a pivotal piece of that treatment.

“At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay — and particularly because I would not deny it — that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin recalled.

The biopic’s release date is not yet clear.

This story first appeared in our sister publication, Gay City News.

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