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Bioethics and Biopolitics: Racism and Homosexuality in “Rustin”

by Esteban Costa

Many films have been made about the rights of sexual minorities, and many others denouncing discrimination against the African-American community in the United States. Despite these contributions, it was pending a film that brought together both injustices, remained for decades in the midst of a complicit and ominous silence.

“Rustin”, which chronicles a brief period in the life of African-American activist Bayard Rustin has just been released and is available on Netflix . The film portrays his role as a leader in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s in the United States, focusing on his work alongside other African Americans in 1963. It focused on the gigantic march of 250,000 people in Washington, DC, near the Abraham Lincoln monument and memorial. The march was the climax of a long struggle and the context in which Martin Luther King delivered his well-known speech “I have a dream”, a moment that will remain forever in history.

The 1960s were the scene of a long journey of multiple efforts, arbitrariness and personal losses, among which were the assassinations of leaders such as John F. Kennedy, in 1963, Malcolm X, in 1965, and King himself, in 1968. Cinema has born witness to these crimes and denounced their perpetrators, becoming a key factor in generating social and historical awareness. Through important directors and actors, film has presented to the general public these slow and costly struggles through which African Americans sought to secure their civil rights. Classics, e.g., “Burning Mississippi” by Alan Parker (1988) , “Malcom X” by Spike Lee (1992), and, most recently, the short film about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “Two Distant Strangers”, by Free and Roe (2020), reflect some of these struggles.

But, as we have suggested above, “Rustin” complements this saga by introducing another dimension: the homosexual condition of the mail character and the denunciation of homophobia and anti-gay prejudices, elements that mak the story doubly original and interesting.

Cinema had already dealt with the issue of sexual diversities through some essential classics, including, for example, “Philadelphia,” which introduced the moving couple played on screen by Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas, raising awareness about AIDS but also about the right to love between two men; or Sean Penn ’s leading role as the gay activist Harvey Milk, which revealed a little-known facet of political-sexual prejudice. Lesbian couples also had a place in the series, of Kelly and Yorkie, the charming heroines of the San Junipero episode of “Black Mirror”, a multi-award-winning program seen by millions, or the endearing relationship of Naomi and Amaita in “Sense 8”, directed by the Wachowski sisters. Or to take a Latin American example, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Hector Babenco, based on the novel by Manuel Puig, in which a political prisoner (Raúl Juliá) coexists in the same cell with a transvestite (William Hurt). [1]

Regarding politics and sexuality, it is essential to point out that discrimination against sexual minorities has taken on an especially brutal character under totalitarian governments, as Carlos Jauregui denounced as early as 1983 regarding the extermination of homosexuals and transvestites under the Argentine military dictatorship. This has recently been confirmed with the publication of a list of 400 names of people from the LGTBIQ+ community who are among the tragic list of the 30,000 missing detainees. [2]

The film “The Plague” by Luis Puenzo , inspired by the novel by Albert Camus, presents this horror. Set in a Latin American country under a military dictatorship, the rats are also the dissidents of the regime who live in underground tunnels, confined in clandestine detention centers. A symbol that the extermination included all forms of dissidence is revealed halfway through the film, when democracy returns, and a group of survivors are freed, among whom appears Cris Miró, the first trans woman who gained notoriety in Argentina.

The film “Rustin”, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2023, brings together racism and homophobia for the first time in a film distributed to hundreds of millions of people through the Netflix platform. This commentary, which avoids revealing details of the plot, pays tribute to the cultural event of its premiere and to the memory of Bayard Rustin whose exploits, lovingly political and sexual, are presented through the wonder of cinema.


[1For a tour of the topic through films and series, see "Trans cinema. The social representations of sexual diversity", by E. Costa, F. González Pla and J. Michel Fariña, in Costa E . and Etchezahar, E. (Ed.) Diversity. Identity. Rights . UNLZ Faculty of Social Sciences, 2020.

[2On the topic of disappearances and sexual diversity see this note, which uses the figure 30,400 to raise awareness on the topic: https://www.ambito.com/politica/30400-desaparecidos-retrabajo-y-memoria- the-lgbt-community-dictatorship-n5681560



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Original Title:Rustin

Director: George C. Wolfe

Year: 2023

Country: Estados Unidos


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