The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s house has just been firebombed, and he has surrounded himself with armed guards. It's 1956, and King is beginning to question how much longer his bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., can hold out without his own followers resorting to violence. At that point arrives Bayard Rustin, an activist from up North, who counsels King that the boycott is the perfect legal case for a national battle against segregation. The cornerstone of that fight, Rustin says, must be nonviolence.
That meeting, as depicted in the HBO original movie Boycott, marks the birth of two icons for civil rights: King as the unwavering supporter of nonviolence to achieve racial equality and Rustin as the steadfast King adviser and deputy whose refusal to be closeted forever ties the battle for racial civil rights, in many minds, to the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Boycott, premiering February 24, portrays the late Rustin as an eloquent dandy who comes out to King in one of the movie's more powerful scenes: "I'm a man of my times, but the times don't know it yet," he says.
"Rustin was a real mentor for Dr. King," says Boycott co-executive producer Shelby Stone. She and director Clark Johnson (Homicide) lobbied for the story to include Rustin's homosexuality, something that eluded some of Rustin's coworkers in the civil rights movement. "It's going to be a big shock to some in the black community," Stone says. "I'm delighted we're able to inform."
Being gay kept Rustin out of the spotlight in the civil fights movement because many feared that opponents would use Rustin's homosexuality to distract from the causes he supported. "He was overlooked for a long time," says Walter Naegle, who had been Rustin's partner for 10 years when the activist died in 1987. "I'm happy he's getting the recognition he deserves."
So is actor Erik Todd Dellums, who captivated audiences as a transsexual hooker on NYPD Blue and steals the show again as Rustin in Boycott. Dellums, who has a degree in political science from Brown University, spent weeks researching the life of the man who championed labor and civil rights causes and organized the 1963 march on Washington, which culminated in King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech.
Dellums discovered that Rustin wrote many of the eloquent phrases King spoke during the years leading up to the march. "There were very important words that came out of Dr. King's mouth that Rustin was never given credit for," Dellums says. "Many people today still don't want to admit that it was his work. He should be respected and revered not only in the black community but the world community and especially the gay community."
The actor interviewed many who knew Rustin and pored over books, audiotapes, and videotapes. Just as costar Jeffrey Wright worked long and hard to capture King's voice, Dellums perfected Rustin's lisp and English-sounding affection--which ultimately were ruled out by the production team before filming began. "His lisp was a natural speech impediment, but I think [the producers] were concerned over how it would be received," he says. "It's much easier to portray the sitcom queen than a real person in a historical perspective who happens to be gay."
Dellums doesn't divulge his own sexuality, preferring to take what he calls "the Ricky Martin approach." It's much more fun to be mysterious," he says. Rustin's sexual orientation, on the other hand, is an important part of history. Notes Dellums: "What we're showing is that anyone--gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered--can live a life of dignity and make an important contribution to society."
Oldfield is an Emmy-nominated TV reporter based in Orlando, Fla.
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|Title Annotation:||portrayal of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in motion picture Boycott|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Feb 27, 2001|
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