Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

Institute History

  • 2003 Sundance Film Festival


This stirring documentary combines the story of a unique American life with a rich and fascinating chronicle of civil rights struggles in America in the late twentieth century. Bayard Rustin, a leader in these struggles, has long dwelt in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr.—partly by his own design, and partly through the complicity of activists, politicians, and historians. This film gives Rustin his due, particularly in mapping his strategic and moral choices whose impact on American political thought is still being felt.

From his collegiate days as a music student enthralled by the ideals of Communism, to his imprisonment for conscientious objection to World War II, to his crucial role advising King on the tactics of nonviolent resistance, Rustin is shown as a tireless and intrepid organizer determined to hold America to its promises. Rustin's life is also a study in the parallels between racism and homophobia: During the 1940s and 1950s, at the same time he was battling Jim Crow, Rustin was remarkably open about being gay. Yet recognizing that his homosexuality presented a political liability, he made a conscious decision to remain in the background for the sake of the movement, only to be sacrificed later by its leaders. Myriad testimonials from colleagues and friends, stirring songs of protest sung by Rustin himself, and electrifying archival footage round out this inspiring and long-overdue portrait of conscience in action.

— Shannon Kelley

Screening Details

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