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Column: Your U.S. history class needed a film like ‘Rustin’

Colman Domingo stands next to a sign that says 'Rustin'
Recently it seems Colman Domingo has been the person to call when Hollywood recognizes that representation matters.
(Unique Nicole / Getty Images)
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In the ’90s I was a founding member of the Black History Club in high school, took Black history courses in college and worked in the minority affairs office in grad school, and yet I did not know who Bayard Rustin was until seeing the 2003 documentary “Brother Outsider.”

That miseducation was not by accident.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Rustin — the man who introduced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the principles of nonviolence, the man who organized the March on Washington — was gay. Because of his sexual orientation, his contributions to the civil rights movement were not often retold. Since the documentary’s release 20 years ago, there has been a concerted effort to change that, most recently culminating in the 2023 film “Rustin” and the performance of awards season darling Colman Domingo in the title role.

A decade ago, Domingo brought Ralph Abernathy to life in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which also included Rustin. Today he is the first Afro-Latino to be nominated for a lead actor Oscar. He is the second out gay man to be nominated for portraying an out gay man.

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This intersection has quietly played a significant part in Domingo’s career: He appeared in 2020’s Oscar winner “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” about the life of a queer Black woman, and in 2018’s Oscar winner “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on a book by James Baldwin, a gay Black man. For his work last year, in addition to being Oscar-nominated for “Rustin,” Domingo is part of the SAG-nominated cast of “The Color Purple,” written by out Black author Alice Walker.

Recently it seems Domingo has been the person to call when Hollywood recognizes that representation matters. Not because it can grab attention and awards, but because representation reflects the history and the connective tissue between the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.

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For many years, what little queer content there was in mainstream America did not include people of color. But we’ve long been here, standing at the intersection.

Walker’s “Purple” shaped the 1980s; Baldwin’s “Beale Street” was born in the 1970s; Rustin came to prominence in the 1960s, but his work in civil rights dates back to the 1940s; and Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, was a queer Black woman born in 1886. That was the year of the Carroll County Courthouse Massacre in Mississippi. More than 50 armed white men stormed a courtroom and opened fire on all the Black people in attendance, killing more than 20. The crime? A Black lawyer bringing charges against a white person. That was the world Rainey was born into. And in that world she openly had relationships with women. I marvel thinking about the bravery. Viola Davis was nominated for numerous awards for bringing Rainey’s full life to audiences.

It’s important to tell these stories at the intersection. People need to know this history that’s been kept from all of us because of yesteryear’s attitudes. It’s important that Hollywood develops the same fascination with these hidden figures as it does with the lives of Garland, Monroe, Elvis and other white cultural icons whose biographies have been reexamined time and time again. Now that queer storytelling has expanded beyond Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS crisis, my hope is that more of the Rustins of history will be explored. The entertainment value is important, the history even more so.

Keeping warriors like Rustin out of history and out of storytelling was intentional. The push to correct that wrong should be deliberate as well. It’s wonderful that Domingo is everywhere for his portrayal of Rustin. And it would be even more so if Rustin, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, were everywhere for Black History Month.

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His role in history isn’t yet celebrated as it should be. Maybe it never will be. That’s what happens when contributions are minimized. Stories become lost. Tremendous acts of courage are forgotten. Too many lives we should honor go unknown.

This awards season, a light has been shined on someone we should never forget. Perhaps instead of relying on sequels and reboots, Hollywood should turn to the stories nestled in our history that we should know. The history that prejudice tried to keep in the shadows should take center stage.

@LZGranderson

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