Our Bayard, the Celebrity: On George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin”

Marcus Lee looks at the new Netflix biopic of Bayard Rustin in the context of his reception and iconography.

Our Bayard, the Celebrity: On George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin”

THRUST INTO THE SPOTLIGHT by Netflix, Bayard Rustin has emerged as a celebrity. The Golden Globe–nominated biopic Rustin (2023) dramatizes how he staged the 1963 March on Washington, presenting him as—in the words of one critic—“a pivotal but undersung civil rights hero.” As reflected in the promotion of the film and responses to its debut, the standard narrative about Rustin goes something like this: unwilling to publicly acknowledge a Black, openly gay man, historians have largely consigned Bayard Rustin to mere footnotes, sidelining his political contributions and denying him his rightful place in history. The new film promises to correct this problem by transforming Bayard Rustin into a “household name,” thus revealing a previously “hidden” dimension of Civil Rights history. It would appear, then, that Bayard Rustin has gone from “invisible man” to national icon overnight, and for many, his newfound “celebrity” represents a step toward true equality.

But Bayard Rustin is hardly an overnight celebrity, and, in reality, the political implications of his popularization remain unclear.

The celebratory rhetoric around the Netflix film and Rustin’s popularity tends to pivot on two notable assumptions, the first being that few people were familiar with Bayard Rustin until now, the second that the political stakes of remembering him are self-evident. The oft-cited claim that Rustin has been “lost” to history or “forgotten” lays the groundwork for the belief that restoring him to public memory can, itself, transform political discourse. Both assumptions are reflected across the many responses to the film that begin with the question “Who was Bayard Rustin?” and end with the expectation that canonizing him will spur political progress. Intently focused on whether he is remembered, such discourse surrounding the film elides key historical context: the decades-long debates over how Bayard Rustin is memorialized.

Having tracked public representations of Rustin for roughly eight years—from attending the annual Bayard Rustin–Audre Lorde Breakfast for the first time in 2013 to reading about the Bayard Rustin Stamp Act in 2021—I recently turned toward charting the invention and political uses of his iconography, starting with his death in 1987. Drawing on long-standing disputes over the politics of Civil Rights memory as well as recent reflections in transgender studies on the ethical stakes of historical narration—I have studied how, and to what ends, historians, artists, and activists have portrayed Rustin’s life-history. If Bayard Rustin is an exemplary historical figure, what exactly do his life and politics illuminate? Alluding to the debates over this question that emerged in the decade following Rustin’s death, historian Alan Brinkley wrote that “even [Rustin’s] admirers had some difficulty articulating [or agreeing upon] exactly what had made him a significant figure in the nation’s recent history.”

It is no surprise, one might say, that different political actors, historians, and artists—in their funerary remarks, obituaries, magazine tributes, oral histories, and documentary projects—advanced alternative perspectives on Rustin’s legacy. But these debates warrant renewed consideration in light of the Netflix film and its reception. Current discourse on Rustin (conspicuously reflected in the celebration of his heightened popularity) is flattened by oversimplified notions of exclusion and recognition. If, as such discourse often suggests, the act of remembering Rustin were reducible to locating him within his “rightful” but long-denied place in history, the Netflix film would appear to be the ultimate solution to the agreed-upon problem of historical erasure. If, however, the film is considered in the context of decades-long debates over how to define Rustin’s place in history, its debut and his newfound “celebrity” do not signal resolution. Instead, they mark a new phase in a protracted contest over the meaning and measure of Rustin’s legacy.

Reconsider, as a point of reference, the scholarly text frequently mentioned in reviews of the Netflix film: John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. This 2003 biography, which is the single most cited account of Rustin’s life-history, is often credited with drawing attention to Rustin and highlighting the degree to which other historians had “erased” him from public memory. Critics have spotlighted D’Emilio’s work while celebrating the Netflix biopic: if Rustin was unjustly “lost” to history, they suggest, it appears that he is now “found” and available for incorporation into public memory.

The expediency of this narrative, however, belies the fact that Lost Prophet was not the first book-length biography of Rustin, nor is it the only—it actually marked the fourth. Three biographies (including a New York Times bestseller, a young readers book, and a well-respected scholarly monograph), as well as an acclaimed 1997 stage play, all preceded D’Emilio’s account. Community organizations in Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., moreover, had already begun to pay tribute to Rustin and hold annual events in his honor, years before Lost Prophet was published. There had, in fact, been enough discussion about Rustin by 2003 that some reviewers found D’Emilio’s depiction of him as a “long-forgotten” figure misleading, perhaps even disingenuous. Of D’Emilio’s title, for instance, one reviewer wrote: “Whether [Rustin] was a prophet in his own time is a matter of judgment. But to say that he was lost could not be farther from the truth.”

D’Emilio’s intervention, then, was not that he “broke the silence” about Rustin; those who read any of the three biographies preceding his were familiar with Rustin already. Rather, D’Emilio—like Brian Freeman in Civil Sex and Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer in 2003’s Brother Outsider—portrayed Rustin in a way that critically defamiliarized his life and times. Beyond basic concerns about whether he would be remembered, what mattered was the political salience of the questions and conundrums Rustin was made to represent. In this way, the notion that he was “lost” was less a statement of fact than a representational strategy employed to unsettle encrusted assumptions about Civil Rights Movement history and their attendant ideals.

The stakes of “finding” Rustin exceeded the man himself. This was a rallying cry and an “ethically constitutive story” intended to bind together some issues and untether others. It was, in short, the subversive edge D’Emilio and his contemporaries brought to representations of Rustin, not the mere fact that they documented his life at all, that made their work significant.

Unfortunately, the Netflix biopic offers no subversive edge. No longer a strategically rendered figure, whose legacy compels us to reevaluate our own ideals, Rustin is depicted—in the words of George C. Wolfe, the director of the film—as “the ultimate American”: an utterly familiar subject, promising only to reconfirm what we think we already know. In other words, what we are witnessing is not the restoration of an “undersung hero” to public memory but rather the ongoing normalization of his legacy.

To be sure, many people will watch the film and learn about Rustin for the first time. But the fixation on increasing Rustin’s popularity displaces urgent questions about the political purchase of how he is remembered. Absorbed with making him known, critics and political analysts have failed to recognize, for instance, that the decade preceding the debut of the Netflix film was not marked by “silence” about Rustin. On the contrary, “more than 100 corporations, law firms, financial services companies, and government agencies”—including JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and others—hosted workplace diversity trainings centered on “Bayard Rustin’s intersectional story.” It is precisely because his story has become conventional that JPMorgan Chase would make Rustin, a socialist, the subject of a corporate workshop.

Or consider how Rustin is framed in relation to the important term intersectionality itself. There appears to be a growing consensus among reviewers that—as Adam Gopnik, one such reviewer, puts it—the Netflix film and Rustin’s legacy are “aptly intersectional.” This apparent consensus, however, belies disagreement over the meaning and uptake of the term: while one reviewer describes Rustin as “the godfather of intersectionality,” a different writer notes his conspicuous failure to consider intersectionality much at all. Worse, Gopnik insists that Rustin’s life-history indicates the extent to which homosexuality was “anathema” to Black Power activists, who were—somehow in contrast to the stewards of midcentury antigay repression—“motivated by genuine abhorrence of gay men.” This deeply ahistorical claim pivots on strikingly impoverished notions of race, sexuality, and their imbrication, and it underscores the cheapening of intersectionality amid the normalization of Rustin’s legacy. Credited as its progenitor and criticized for failing to consider its potential, Rustin would appear to represent everything intersectionality is and everything it is not—leaving one to wonder whether intersectionality is anything at all. (The same could be said of the lines of continuity drawn between Rustin and the Movement for Black Lives, Rustin and the Obama presidency, Rustin and democratic socialism, etc.)

The muddying of certain political categories in discourse about Rustin is undoubtedly a reflection of his deep complexity. But efforts to heighten awareness about him often sideline important opportunities to reckon with these complexities, as well as our own. What if, for example, it cannot be taken for granted that Rustin was “intersectional”? Could the disagreement about his relationship to the term unsettle our assumptions about its very meaning? How might depicting Rustin as an ironic foil to intersectionality—not its avatar—reinvigorate current debates about its conceptual purchase?

I propose, then, a shift in focus: from whether Bayard Rustin is “known” to what representations of him can politically produce. This requires flipping the now-hackneyed question “Who was Bayard Rustin?” and asking, instead, “Who are we? What sort of moment is this in which to remember Bayard Rustin?”

This reframing dispels the notion that the political salience of his legacy is timeless and self-evident, while alerting us to the implications of how and when we choose to call forth his memory. Notwithstanding Rustin’s rising “celebrity,” the search for our Bayard is unending. And each phase of it has the potential to reveal as much about the plural possessive pronoun—our—as it does about the man himself.

LARB Contributor

Marcus Lee is the Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in LGBT studies and lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. His forthcoming project, “The Search for Our Bayard,” examines shifting historical representations of Bayard Rustin, from 1987 to 2013.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!