George C. Wolfe’s 2023 film, Rustin is a biographical drama based on America’s most unsung hero, Bayard Rustin, who was a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. Along with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin was key individuals behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, igniting the revolution against discrimination based on race, sex, color, and religion. The film masterfully recreated some of the iconic historical moments and even used the famous quotes of these key figures, but it also took some creative liberties for dramatic purposes as well as to showcase the struggles in Bayard Rustin’s life. The makers took some creative liberties in depicting Rustin’s love life by creating two of the most pivotal characters in the storyline. One of them was a young student who fell in love with Rustin and lived with him during the time when he was planning a march, and the other was a closeted homosexual man who couldn’t help but fall in love with the charismatic personality Rustin had.
Who Was Tom Kahn?
Apart from his activism against racism and cultural discrimination, Bayard Rustin was also a gay activist. He was a gay man who had never hidden his identity to fit into the crowd of straight people. He was a free thinker who always prioritized equality in every aspect of life, regardless of sex, color, and race. In the Netflix film Rustin, we were introduced to Bayard’s lover, Tom Kahn, with whom he used to cohabitate. During the time when Bayard was no longer a part of SCLC, he was planning for another march to perform at Lincoln Memorial to raise a voice against racial segregation. Tom actively participated in this and became Bayard’s assistant.
Tom Kahn was originally born as Thomas John Marcel, who was later adopted by a couple named Adele and David Kahn, from whom he got his second surname. We’re not sure if Tom really left his family at the age of 16 after coming to know his parents were racist, but the film took some creative license to add this extra layer to Gus Halper’s Tom to give some nuances to his character. However, in real life, Tom’s father, David Kahn, was a member of a communist party. During his college years, he began to take part in the democratic movements. He was a social activist and a civil libertarian who made a major contribution to the civil rights movement.
Initially, Tom’s relationship with Rustin was more like a mentor-student relationship. Rustin used to inspire him, just like every other member of the student assembly was inspired and motivated by him. But Rustin’s charismatic appearance and charm affected Tom differently. Especially after meeting with Rustin, Tom realized that he was attracted to men. Initially, he had internal conflicts about his feelings, but after getting to know Rustin, he realized that there was no shame in embracing the ultimate truth of his life. The relationship between Rustin and Tom was multifaceted, the essence of which we managed to get in the Netflix film. In the 1960s, just like Rustin, Tom also came out as an openly homosexual man, setting an example of a true liberal individual who demanded equality in every way. Even though their relationship didn’t get a proper ending, they probably remained close friends.
Who Was Elias Taylor?
We aren’t sure if there was anyone by the name of Elias Taylor with whom Rustin had an affair in real life, but the film has probably taken some creative liberties by introducing this character to add depth to Rustin’s character journey. Rustin had faced several conflicts regarding his homosexuality in real life. In Pasadena, he was arrested after police caught him being intimate with two men in a car. Following that incident, embracing his sexuality openly became traumatic in Rustin’s life, but he was a brave man.
In the Netflix film, Elias represents those men whom Rustin once loved but couldn’t end up with due to societal pressure. In that era, homosexuality was almost a criminal offense, which forced a great many people to hide their real selves. Most of them were married and even fathers of their children, just like Elias was. He was attracted to Rustin, but for fear of losing his stability and security in life, he chose the easy way to kill a part of himself rather than choosing a life of honesty and sexual independence.
In the portrayal of Tom Kahn, makers made significant creative changes that were not all true in real life. Probably, Gus Halper’s Tom in Rustin and Johnny Ramey’s Elias were the amalgamation of all the men whom Rustin had loved and lost with the flow of time. However, Rustin was lucky enough to finally end up with the one he loved the most. Walter Neagle, an American artist, was the one Rustin fell in love with in 1977. They remained together till the very end of Rustin’s life. In 1987, Rustin suffered a cardiac arrest, and following that, he passed away at the age of 75. Walter Naegle, who still reminisces about his lover and how he fell in love with him when he met him on his way to Times Square, has written books on his lover. Some of his notable works were The Man Behind the March on Washington and Troublemaker of Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin. Even after Rustin’s death, the United States of America remembered him as an iconic and pivotal figure in the history of the civil rights movement. After his death, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Netflix film Rustin captures the complexities of Rustin’s life in an unprecedented way. Netflix has successfully given this great historical figure, who was forgotten by many, the respect he deserves. Rustin’s character journey, including his relationships with Elias and Tom, highlights the personal struggles involved in his public activism. Ultimately, Rustin’s triumph extended beyond the March on Washington. His advocacy laid the foundation for equal human rights, emphasizing the importance of embracing one’s true self while striving for equality.