Hollywood and queerness have never gotten along particularly well. Historically, it’s been less of an oil and water type situation and more of a cesium in water type reaction. For the non chemistry majors out there, expose cesium to water and it explodes.
Plenty of famous queer actors such as Rock Hudson, Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant hid their personal lives from the public.
It’s not any more pleasant when you look at the stories told by Holywood. Those queer characters who do make it to screen are either miserable side characters leading lives of woe, death and misery, or end up shown as sadistic, depraved villains.
Then there are the dozens of films, biopics, in which historical LGBTQ figures show up, pretty much with their queer identities completely erased, unless they were criminals or Nazis, in which case the queerness will be emphasized well beyond what history recorded.
For more information on how Hollywood treated LGBTQ characters, check out the documentary “The Celluloid Closet.”
Things are changing, however, and a recent film to go against the trend is the film “Rustin,” which tells the story of Bayard Rustin and his effort to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was a gay man and an important member of the African American civil rights movement. In addition to organizing the March on Washington, he persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt non-violent civil disobedience as a major tactic in the civil rights movement.
“Rustin” does not hold back from acknowledging its lead character’s sexuality. In addition to showing Rustin’s contentious personal life with his lover, Tom Kahn, we even get a brief sex scene featuring two black men.
Colman Domingo, who plays Rustin, gives a charismatic performance, showing both Rustin’s magnetism and more prickly personality characteristics.
When it comes to biopics, one of the more frequent complaints I’ve seen from critics is that they tend to lack focus. “Rustin” suffers from the opposite problem and probably could have opened up to show more of Rustin’s life as an activist. We get a lot of the nitty gritty of the behind the scene details about organizing the March on Washington, but we see precious little about Rustin’s past before the March.
For example, one thing I would have liked to see, even if only briefly, would have been Rustin’s involvement in protecting Japanese-Americans property in California when they were unjustly arrested and sent to internment camps during World War II.
We also never see Rustin’s involvement in organizing for gay rights in the 1980’s, which I think would have been useful to include.
In the end, though, I am glad that this film exists and that Domingo’s work is being recognized by the Academy. Domingo’s Oscar nomination for playing Rustin is a historical nomination, in that he is now the first openly gay black man to be nominated for playing a gay character. Only one other openly gay actor has been nominated for playing a gay character; Ian McKellen in 1999 for “Gods and Monsters.”
I don’t normally pay much attention to the academy awards but I will admit that this year’s nominees list does include several other notable nominations. For example, Lily Gladstone who goes by she/they pronouns and has advocated for the decolonization of gender, was the first Native American woman to be nominated for Lead Actress.
Whether Domingo gets to take home a statue or not, “Rustin” is worth seeking out for the way it sheds light on a lesser known piece of history.
Photo caption: Colman Domingo’s nomination for his performance for Bayard Rustin made him just the second openly gay man to be nominated for playing a gay character. (The Associated Press)
Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.firstname.lastname@example.org