Bruce Cohen ’83 Comes Home to Yale with 'Rustin,' a Film Rooted in Purpose

Yingying Zhao

Left: Rustin costume designer and co-chair of design at the David Geffen School of Drama Toni-Leslie James, Center: Rustin Producer Bruce Cohen ’83, Right:  Yale African American Studies and American Studies professor Crystal Feimster, Photo: Lotta Studio

In the fall of 1979, Bruce Cohen ’83 arrived at Yale and went to hear the freshmen address delivered by former Yale president Bartlett Giamatti. His time at Yale, and the course of his life would be changed forever.

“‘I want you to spend these next four years to find your personal way that you are connecting to the world, potentially even change the world, find your calling, and go do it.’ Those words blew my mind.” said Cohen, recalling Giamatti’s speech. “They gave me chills when I heard them, and they’re giving me chills repeating them. I’ve told this story many times over the years. My sophomore year…I was walking by Mory’s and I literally remember stopping myself and saying, ‘I’m having my Bart Giamatti moment. I want to make movies.’ My hope was that that love of film would translate into making President Giamatti somewhat prouder, or at least happy that at least one kid had answered his call.”

My sophomore year…I was walking by Mory’s and I literally remember stopping myself and saying, ‘I’m having my Bart Giamatti moment. I want to make movies.
Bruce Cohen, 'Rustin' producer and Yale Alumnus

Cohen’s answer to the call takes full force in Rustin, which tells the long-forgotten story of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who was integral to the movement and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington. The film is co-produced by Cohen and Higher Ground's Tonia Davis and George C. Wolfe, and Barack Obama and Michelle Obama also serve as executive producers. Rustin is an expansive but also intimate portrayal of Rustin’s life, exploring his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., his orientation as a gay man in a time when homosexuality was often criminalized, and his nonviolent struggle for racial equality as a Black man in a deeply segregated America.

Yale Schwarzman Center held a pre-release screening of Rustin on Saturday, October 28 in the Humanities Quadrangle. The film was screened in two rooms to accommodate as many audience members as possible. Moviegoers were excited for the chance to see Rustin before its official release. Before the screening began, the audience was inspired by a musical performance from Shades of Yale, an undergraduate a cappella group that performs songs from the African diaspora and African American tradition. Then, the lights dimmed for an unforgettable experience.

Colman Domingo stars in the titular role as Bayard Rustin, and he is a delight to watch. He plays Rustin with such enthusiasm and depth, bringing to light how Rustin reconciled his identity as a Black gay man, and how other leaders in the civil rights movement, as well as opponents of the movement, used it against him. Rustin met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 when he visited Montgomery, Alabama and they discussed the application of nonviolence in mass protest and American racial politics. The film also stars Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP; Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader and civil rights activist who founded the nation's first major Black labor union; and Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr. Another highlight of this film is Rustin’s group of “angelic troublemakers”: young college students and activists that raise money, coordinate transportation, and secure all means necessary to make the hundreds of thousands of people descending on Washington a reality.

The audience erupted into applause at the end of the film and cheered loudly when Barack and Michelle Obama’s names appeared as executive producers. Cohen was then joined on stage by Rustin costume designer and co-chair of design at the David Geffen School of Drama Toni-Leslie James, and Yale African American Studies and American Studies professor Crystal Feimster to discuss the making of the film James spoke of the intensive research that was done for the costumes, particularly in terms of geography, as the “angelic troublemakers” who came from different regions of the country needed different pieces to reflect where they actually came from. She also provided a fun fact about the design of Rustin’s apartment as seen in the film. It is an exact replica of Rustin’s apartment in real life, from the layout of the room, down to some of the smaller trinkets that Rustin collected while he was alive.

Rustin is now playing in select theaters and will be released November 17 on Netflix. Finally, the world will understand the forgotten history of a Black gay man who influenced America and fought for equality despite many obstacles. Likewise, audiences will finally have the chance to see and hear Cohen’s call to action for them to find ways to change the world for the better, too.