“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”: 2003 biographical documentary covers activist who connected many issues

A few years ago, Human Rights Campaign (HTC) gave away copies of a DVD for the 2003 PBS POV film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”, a biography   I overlooked it, and discovered it while packing to move from house to condo this fall in my own personal “downsizing”.

The 84 minute documentary is directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. It features a lot of black and white newsreel footage in small aspect, as well as interviews with two of Rustin’s male partners and also Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Rustin is perhaps best known for working with Dr. Martin Luther King on various events including the 1963 March on Washington, as a covert gay man.  But his life spanned many issues, moving from communism to anti-communism, working with labor unions to get them up to speed on civil rights, draft resistance, and only later in life openness about homosexuality. The film ends with some coverage of the 1987 LGB march on Washington;  the 1993 LGB march was larger and better known (I attended it) and covered heavily by writers like Andrew Sullivan.

Throughout his life, the FBI closely monitored him.  He served prison time for resisting the WWII draft, and wrote to his male partner from prison as if his partner was a woman. He had at one time joined the Young Communist League (in 1936) but after the US entered WWII the communists dropped their interest in race relations.  Ironically, later, he would push for racial integration of the military, which Truman achieved in 1948.

Later in life, he would be busted for public sex in Pasadena CA in 1953, and the history of a “morals charge” would be used in rhetoric against him, as by Senator Strom Thurmond (whom we know emphatically opposed lifting the ban on gays in the military in 1993, with his “it isn’t normal” rant in a public assembly in Norfolk right in front of Tracey Thorne.)

Later in his life, Rustin became anti-communist and supported US involvement in Vietnam but criticized many of the specific actions taken by the military. The film does cover the issue of identity politics and intersectionality as Rustin experienced it in earlier generations.  He created controversy as to whether is involvement with labor issues and later Vietnam represented the best interest of “his own people”, African-Americans.  He believed that African-Americans (called “negroes” in the 1960s when I was coming of age) needed to accept that technology would affect the labor market for everyone.  Heliked to use the phrase “angelic troublemakers”.

Name:  “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Director, writer:  Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer
Released:  2003
Format:  1.85:1  (often 1:37:1), often BW
When and how viewed:  DVD giveaway from HRC, 2017/12/27
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Question Why, PBS POV
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 at

“The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA” by Benita Roth, recalling the internals of AIDS activism a couple decades ago

The detailed analytical chronology “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s” certainly brings to my own mind the political struggles in Dallas, where I was living in the 1980s, as the epidemic reached my southern conservative city about a year or two after it had started to burn in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The author is Benita Roth, Professor of Sociology, History and Women’s Studies at Binghamton University (New York State).

I had moved to Dallas from New York City at the start of 1979 to start a new job, and the relocation may have saved my life. But by early 1983, after sensational media reports (like Geraldo Rivera’s on ABC 20.20), the right wing was proposing draconian extensions to the Texas sodomy law, HR2138, trying to ban gays from almost all occupations. There was a particularly vitriolic group, Dallas Doctors Against AIDS. The Dallas Gay Alliance (in the days of Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo and the Crossroads Market on Cedar Springs) managed to keep the bill dying in committee. This is history that has been forgotten.

There was, in the national debate, over whether AIDS was primarily about “personal responsibility” and “behavior”, or whether it was about belonging to a marginalized group. Of course, it was both. But Dr. Roth’s book certainly focuses on left wing activism, based on solidarity and “intersectionality”.

I’m reminded of a sign in the recent Equality March for Pride and Unity in Washington DC. “Intersectional Resistance and Collective Liberation”. Intersectionality refers to the coming together of different groups (the “rainbow coalition” of the 90s, maybe) and the tensions that can occur about the nuances and priorities of the groups. For example, rural or inner-city African Americans (“people of color”), sometimes infected by needles and often heterosexually (especially male to female), don’t have the same perspective as urban white and economically independent cis gay males. Intersectionality is a big issue in the gay community today, as the role of not just transgender but “gender fluidity” seems emotionally disruptive to the values of the white cis gay males.

The author writes in meta mode, often telling the reader what she is going to cover, and what she has covered, as if she were teaching a course or graduate school seminar. She gives an almost biblical chronicle of ACT/UP in Los Angeles, the internal conflicts (which are a big deal for almost any activist), the role of women, the group disciplines (intersectionality and loyalty), the sometimes disastrous challenges to the power structures, then the winding down, as activists moved into other areas. She correlates it to a lot of other LA history, such as the Rodney King riots, and governor Pete Wilson’s often duplicitous behavior. She does discuss Ronald Reagan’s unwillingness to discuss AIDS at first, but I didn’t see that she covers Reagan’s previous opposition to the Briggs Initiative (concerning gay teachers) in 1978 when he was governor.

Benita emphasizes that HIV has affected women at a higher rate than most people realize, and the percentage of patients who are female and infected heterosexually continues to rise. It still seems to be a mystery today if this was completely the case in Africa in the early 1980s, although the presence of other STD’s would facilitate heterosexual transmission. She does discuss protease inhibitors and PrEP, but seems to assume that normal health insurance should always cover them. With the GOP rewriting health care now, this coverage for many gay men (MSM) would seem to be at grave risk. She also notes that the use of PrEP might have the unintended effect of making men complacent about condom use.

She makes the interesting observation that in the 1980s people tended to look at volunteering to help PWA’s as a kind of “activism”. I encountered that view in a 1986 visit to Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim. People would move in and out of volunteering and paid jobs in caregiving, as at hospices, as if that were political behavior.

The author sometimes does cover the existential political threat that AIDS seemed to create to the male gay community. I remember the night in 1984 that “they closed the baths in San Francisco.” But the effort to close them in Los Angeles was met with resistance, a fear that they could lead to closing of bars and any meeting places (like in Nigeria today).

Her discussion of the blowup at the 1992 GOP convention reminds me of Barbara Bush’s speech on family values.  “You don’t have to be married,” she said, “but if you have children, they have to become the first priority in your life.”  But in practice, the right wing wants to make a moral case against childlessness, citing population demographics.

She also discusses “CNN” (“Clean Needles Now”). I’m reminded of now VP Mike Pence’s idea in 2000 that you could control AIDS with conversion therapy.

Author: Benita Roth
Title, Subtitle: “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA; Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-107-51417-1
Publication: Cambridge University Press, 249 pages, paper, indexed, appendix; 7 chapters; detailed TOC;  complimentary paper copy provided to me for review
Link: Author

(Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 9:45 PM EDT)

“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”: A teen takes on Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s separate democracy

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a documentary by Joe Piscatella, gives us a detailed history of the Hong Kong “umbrella protests” in 2014, as Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” promise (made by China in 1997 when it took over from Britain) began to unravel as Xi Jingping began to consolidate power in Beijing. The film is also a docudrama about one slender and very determined teenager, Joshua Wong, to take on the system. There are a lot of moral lessons to ponder.

In 2011, at the age of 14. Josh organized a movement called Scholarism, in resistance to Beijing’s insistence on national educational standards based on the Communist Party, as implemented by Cy Leung. Josh posed the basic libertarian moral system was to why young adults could not grow up to be themselves, rather than meet specific pseudo-competitive standards set up by a Communist government needing order and conformity (to add to meaning). In time, China actually backed down a in the standards.

But in 2014 a new resistance, growing out of Scholarism and amplified by Benny Tai, over China’s restrictions on the ability of Hong Kong to elect its own people. Joshua says that Benny didn’t first understand that protest movements need to grow and take reaction to be effective, rather than just be a vehicle or intellectual public argumentation. The “Occupy Central” movement grew and set up protest sites all over Hong Kong, sometimes using umbrellas (“rain shields” as linguist Paul calls them).  Police became energetic and then backed off, hoping the protests would run out of steam.  But when businesses complained they were losing sales, the police reiterated. Josh was arrested (in a scene actually shot in real time) and went on a five day hunger strike. Eventually the strike broke and China maintained control. But Josh recovered and, with his friends, began to run for office in a system where Beijing picks most of the potential candidates.

The film mentions the abduction of at least five booksellers in Hong Kong, thought to sell books critical of Beijing. Ai Weiwei (the subject of at least two documentaries) is mentioned. The film also shows a retrospect of Tianamen Square in Beijing in 1989.

The optics of the film are quite striking, with drone shots of the occupy camps and of the protestors among the skyscrapers with sparklers and then umbrellas.

Edward Snowden had stayed in Hong Kong about one year before these protests.

Panorama of Hong Kong (Wiki).

Name: Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
Director, writer:  Joe Piscatella
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  78
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  Official (needs paid subscription)

(Posted: Saturday, May 27, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“The Zookeeper’s Wife”: a story of resistance against Nazis seems timely now

The Zookeeper’s Wife”, directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, is another story of local resistance to Nazi occupation, and of the moral dilemmas people face when a foreign enemy knocks on the door.  Th film is based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman.

As the film opens, Jan Zabiniski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run the bucolic zoo in Warsaw in the late summer of 1939.  Antonina makes a great show of greeting visitors, and the animals have the run of their lives.  One night she interrupts a party to help an elephant deliver a baby (that is, bring the baby to life).

On September 1, 1939, the Nazi Blitzkrieg arrives with sudden aerial bombardment. Animals escape and the family has to prepare to endure.  But the Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) draws her into a discussion of saving the zoo by using it as a breeding farm.  Externally, there is a lot of talk about the Nazis as legitimate permanent political authority, that will persist “when the war is over”.

But soon the family’s Jewish friends take shelter in own their property, out of sight of the Nazis.  One of them has an insect collection, and kids draw “cave art” with fingerpainting in the basement.  The city is divided into “free” and ghetto.  Then the Jews are transported East and the ghetto is torched. Eventually the family secretly shelters over 300 people.

The film traces the family through all of World War II until the Soviets take over occupation after the end of the war.

The film may seem politically relevant today, as some faith-based groups resist the new anti-immigration crackdown by providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants in the U,S.

I visited Warsaw for one day in May 1999, having ridden the train north from Krakow, where I had visited Auschwistz-Birkenau for one day.

The film was actually shot around Prague.

Warsaw today, Wiki.

Warsaw war ruins, Wiki.

Name:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Director, writer:  Niki Caro
Released:  2017/3/30
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, sneak, late 2017/3/30, sparse attenance
Length:  124
Rating:  R
Companies:  Focus Features
Link:  official

(Picture: Washington DC zoo, lion area, Feb. 2017)

(Posted: Friday, March 31, 2017 at 11 AM EST)


“I Am Not Your Negro”: sneak preview at a Washington DC high school this evening

I Am Not Your Negro” was previewed tonight at Ballou High School (sponsored by AFI Docs) in Washington DC before a full auditorium, three levels.  The film is based on the unfinished book “Remember This House” by James Baldwin, based on Badlwin’s account of his interaction with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King.

The film is directed by Haitian born Raoul Peck, who was present for the QA with an assistant principal of the high school.  The evening felt like a reprise of my own days as a substitute teacher ten years ago.  The principal said that 92% of the senior class, mostly African-American, has been accepted to college.

The film is narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, with the script entirely taken from the writings of Baldwin.  Peck said that he had to produce the film himself and control it, and making it took ten years.  He did raise some money from European sources, especially in Belgium.

The film takes on the mantra, “white is a metaphor for power”, and shows how, from the late 1940s until the 60s, white people really had benefited from the sacrifices of blacks – with the lingering segregation and combative attitudes – without taking moral responsibility.  During the QA, the need for personal involvement and then trend toward personal apathy by most “successful” whites was mentioned.  The film is viewed as timey given Trump and Bannon, but their names weren’t mentioned.

The film shows a great deal of the civil rights activism, especially revolving around desegregation orders and then the Selma march, leading to the deaths of the civil rights leaders. There were many scenes of riots and police activity, with some modern scenes of the Ferguson, MO riots.  The deaths of young black men (such as Treyvon Martin) gets covered.  There was one metaphorical scene shot with images from the surface of Mars.

The film also covered Baldwin’s time in Paris, and mentioned (showing typing of memos) J. Edgar Hoover’s view of him as a security risk and a “homosexual” (as Hoover was covering up for himself).  Baldwin says he came back to the US “to pay my dues”, a favorite moral catch phrase of mine.

The film has excerpts of many other films, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night“, as well as “The Pajama Game” (white values), and even Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” (2003, a school shooting by disenchanted, perhaps bullied white boys, somewhat similar to Columbine.)

Name: I Am Not Your Negro
Director, writer:  Raoul Peck, James Baldwin (book manuscript “Remember This House“)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1   sometimes black and white
When and how viewed:  Ballou High School Washington DC AFI Screening, opens at Landmark E St. Feb. 3
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Amazon Studios, Velvet Film, Magnolia Pictures
Link:  official

QA video



During the QA I mentioned Gode Davis’s unfinished “American Lynching“.  This new film seems to have at least one image in common.




On the way on the Green Line in rush hour, I was the only white person on a crowded Metro car toward SE Washington and the Congress Heights station on Alabama Ave (one mile from the school).  Residual de facto segregation by economics is all too real.  There were a number of white college students at the reception before.

(Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

“Miss Sloane”: are lobbyists just manipulators who don’t believe in the causes they work for?


<tdFilmnation, Euorpa

Name: Miss Sloane
Director, writer: John Madden, Jonathan Perera
Released: 2016/12/9
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston, 2016/12/9, day, small audience
Length 129
Rating R
Link: FilmNation

“Miss Sloane” (directed by John Madden) gives us an aggressive young woman Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) who will do whatever it takes to win in the ultimate world of people manipulation: K-street lobbying in the Washington swamp, which Donald Trump promises his followers he will drain.

One of the key concepts is whether professional lobbyists believe in the causes they work for. Grass roots activist do. And individuals like me pick and choose our own goals.

Miss Sloane quits a firm that would have her work for the pro-gun, pro-NRA lobby and joins another one (Mark Strong) pushing for more intensive background checks and regulation. But the shenanigans in the Senate (with the hearings led by Senator Sperling (John Lithgow) are labyrinthine. Sloane talks fast and drags her young, largely young male staff along for the ride. A lot of the kids seem to be new college grads in their first jobs.

Then, there is the gigolo Forde (Jake Lacy) who makes his absolutely hairless bod a real spectacle in a couple scenes. Maybe Miss Sloane is a lesbian at heart.

And, of course, there is plenty of hacking (with little drones that look like real cockroaches) And there is also federal prison.

The film seems a little humorless, when compared, say, to “The Social Network”.

The film takes place almost entirely indoors. The credits say it was filmed in Washington DC and apparently Montreal. The outdoor scenes looked more like Montreal. It had a French-Canadian production team.

I don’t recall seeing Euorpa distribute directly into the US. This looks like a film that typically distributes from Lionsgate.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to ban lobbying by anyone for five years after leaving government.

(Posted: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016 at 7:45 AM ESR)

“When Two Worlds Collide”: In Bagua, Peru, indigenous peoples protest mining and logging, and government cracks down

Name: When Two Worlds Collide
Director, writer:  Heidi Brandenberg, Mathew Orzel
Released:  2016
Format:  1.66:1 video of varying quality (amateur to HD; some protest scenes of low quality)
When and how viewed:  AFI Docs, 2016/6/26 at Landmark E Street, sold out,  unusually enthusisastic audience
Length 103
Rating NA (PG-13?)
Companies: Yachaywasi, Cinereach,. Tribeca
Link: Tribeca

When Two Worlds Collide” (2015), directed by Heidi Brandenberg and Mathew Orzel, somewhat lengthy, gives us a lot of grainy video footage of the indigenous peoples’ 2009 protests against mining and logging companies in their area near Bagua, in the Amazon valley and mountain foothills of eastern Peru.

A number of policemen die in the protests, and then the Peruvian government launches aggressive prosecutions against the organizers of the protests.  One of the protest leaders actually gets asylum in Nicaragua for a while.  Bureaucrats in the government claim that 400,000 native people don’t have the right to stop progress and higher living standards for 30 million newcomers (in large part European).

Toward the end, the film shows a lot of high-definition footage of how the area looks today, with huge areas deforested into ugly logging camps, and various areas of strip-mined hills with lots of rogue toxic waste.  (But the environmental damage from open-pit mining gets worse higher in the Andes.)   The actual picture quality improves considerably (to normal film standards) in the late scenes, compare to the protest scenes, where apparently high definition was not available. The film has a slightly reduced aspect ratio.

Lima (usually in perpetual cloudiness) looks modern and prosperous compared to the rural Bagua region.

The film was shown in the largest auditorium at Landmark during the AFI-Docs, and was nearly sold out noon Sunday, with an engaged (partly Hispanic) audience, with lots of QA.

Clips from the QA:






Picture of Bagua scenery: By D. Raiser – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=772940

(Posted: Monday, June 27, 2016 at 11:45 AM EDT)

“1971” documents the activist breaking of an FBI office near Philadelphia, pre-Watergate


Name: 1971
Director, writer:  Johanna Hamilton
Released:  2014
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Netflix, 2015/6/11
Length 79 minutes
Rating NA  (PG-13?)
Companies: Candescent Films, Fork Films
Link: Facebook

1971”, directed by Johanna Hamilton, documents the story of a break-in of a small FBI office in Media PA (suburb of Philadelphia) on March 9. 1971, exposing the FBI’s surveillance (“COINTELPRO”) on “dissident” groups opposing not only the Vietnam war but also promoting women’s and perhaps gay rights.  The group called itself the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI”   The film content would resembled that of the book by Betsy Medsger, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.

The film starts with a shot of an attractive young man picking a lock.  The office was in the second floor of a humdrum four-story apartment building near the Delaware county courthouse.  In those days, files were mostly paper and had not been entered into computers.  The activists copied some files and mailed them to major newspapers.  The Washington Post was the first to publish.  The whole episode looks forward to the eventual publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times, but, more importantly, to the cascade of media-related events that would follow Watergate.

The film covers J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with non-conformity, including wearing long hair (something that bothered my own father). I remember my own father’s warning when I started to go to NYC to explore the gay community in 1973, “They’ll have you followed”.  I thought this was paranoid, but maybe he was right. In the book “Stranger Among Friends” (1996), by Bill Clinton supported David Mixner, the author reports being set up as “gay” by the FBI in 1969 in a shockingly transparent sting.  In fact, the very first print leaflet of the Washington Blade in 1969 shows this paranoia (see illustration).

Some of the activists were married with kids, and took the position that having families did not obscure their supposed “moral duty” to protest. I remember this attitude with the Peoples Party of New Jersey, which I “spied on” in 1972;  the people tended to look at even the professional middle class (me, at the time) as “parasites” needing Maoist re-education.

The film also covers a burglary of a draft board in Camden NJ (nearby).  The board would have used paper records and obviously raiding a draft board could comport with protesting the war.

The participants (like Bill Davidson, Bonnie and Bob Raines, Bob Williamson) escaped long prison sentences (because of jury sympathy) and led relatively normal, even professional lives.

(Published: Sunday, June 12, 2016, at 11 AM EDT)