Brother Outsider

PBS Premiere: Jan. 20, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Nancy Kates: I like to tell untold true stories, or the lesser-known aspects of larger, familiar stories. I think people or topics that are slightly on the edge or outside the mainstream often reveal more than better-known stories. In this case, Rustin tells us a lot about the civil rights movement that has been ignored or buried, in large part due to his homosexuality.

As for documentary, it was a natural progression from my earlier career in journalism. The two media are connected, but of course making films is much more complicated, because you have image, sound and music to work with, not simply words.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Brother Outsider - Bennett Singer

Singer: For me, the most gratifying projects are ones that have the potential to bring people together — to overcome differences among various groups, and to spark dialogue. The Rustin film fit perfectly within this framework. And the last lines of the film — where Bayard says, "We are all one. And if we do not know, we will learn it the hard way" — seem to me to be extraordinarily prophetic and relevant to our situation today.

POV: What inspired you to make "Brother Outsider"?

Kates: Both of us were struck by the fact that, despite his enormous contributions to the civil rights movement, Rustin remains quite obscure, in large measure because he was a gay man. We were also inspired by the sheer breadth of his work over his 60 years as an activist. He accomplished so much, and his life touches on so many themes — including African-American history, gay and lesbian issues, pacifism and the legacy of Gandhi. There is a real depth to his story.

POV: What were your goals in making "Brother Outsider"? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Kates: We wanted to tell this untold story, and to do it with the highest integrity, loyalty to the historical record and to Rustin's legacy, and to be as creative as possible in the visual storytelling. We want people to use the film to learn and to be inspired, and perhaps to comment on the American political scene today.

Singer: One of my goals, having worked for close to five years at Blackside, Inc. in Boston, was to make a film that built upon the magnificent storytelling of the films in the "Eyes on the Prize" series. Many of the team members who worked on this film also worked on "Eyes" — including Sam Pollard (executive producer) and Bobby Shepard (director of photography). As in "Eyes," we made the decision to tell the story only with witnesses (people who worked with and knew Rustin) instead of with historians. My hope is that this makes the piece as compelling and immediate as it can be, and that it inspires viewers around the country to think about the ways in which a single, committed individual can bring about profound social change.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making "Brother Outsider"?

Kates: How complicated it is to make a feature-length documentary, and how long the process took.

Singer: I was afraid we'd have a major shortage of archival footage, and I was surprised by the amount of great (and largely undiscovered) material that turned up in the course of our research. For instance, there's a 1962 debate between Rustin and Malcolm X — as well as footage of Rustin as a high school football player in 1931! In all, we worked with close to 200 different film and photo archives around the globe — it was a massive research effort. (Visit RUSTIN'S WORK for an audio recording of the 1962 debate between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X.)

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Kates: We are in the midst of starting our outreach work on this project. I'm not quite ready to start anything new...

Singer: Now that I have a clearer understanding of how to make biographical films, the idea of a film on Alfred Kinsey really interests me. Kinsey transformed America, and Americans' conceptions of sexuality — but there hasn't yet been a documentary that examines his life and legacy.

POV: What are your favorite websites?

Singer: (very practical site on filmmaking, with lots of good links) (The Library of Congress — great for picture research) (website for a novel of suspense I co-authored)