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MOVIES Matt Wolf aims to tell Bayard Rustin's story
by Jake Edkahl
2017-06-13

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Matt Wolf is an award-winning filmmaker based out of New York. His most recent work, Bayard & Me, details the story of the late civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin and Rustin's partner, Walter Naegle.

Wolf's films have earned recognition at festivals and focus on untold but remarkable stories. His previous projects include, Wild Combination, Teenage, I Am Rebel, The Face of AIDS and I Remember.

Windy City Times: Where did the idea for this documentary come from? How long did it take?

Matt Wolf: StoryCorps—an oral history and radio project in New York—was doing a queer initiative, and they approached me about contributing stories and recommending people to be interviewed. I had heard about the phenomenon of intergenerational gay adoption, and I said, "Let's try and talk to somebody who did that."

WCT: You have a pretty impressive resume, with more than a few film projects under your belt. Did any of your previous works influence the way you approached the filming and overall development of Bayard & Me?

MW: Yeah, I've done several biographical documentaries about queer history. So, in a way, this is my wheelhouse; this is what I'm used to doing. You know, the topic of the civil-rights movement or intergenerational adoption, that was new to me. But I'm used to telling a story by interviewing someone intimately talking about a partner or a relationship that is no more. And typically, that is a narrative that relates to the AIDS epidemic, but this was due to age.

WCT: What made you choose that opening shot of a modern city versus the 1970s? Your documentary has a lot of shots that cut back and forth between then and now.

MW: That was a theme for me, to kind of move between the past and the present. ... In a lot of my films, I'm interested in kind of blurring the lines between the past and the present, and jumping back and forth. That's why I chose to shoot the present-day stuff in 16-millimeter film—because it blends pretty seamlessly with the archival footage.

WCT: What was it like hunting down footage for this story? Is that a challenge you look forward to finding solutions for?

MW: All of my films involve a lot of archival footage, so that's something that is a big part of my creative process. For this particular film, I worked closely with the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco who has a very unique archival film collection.

WCT: What was it like seeing old footage of Bayard during the civil-rights movement? How do you think his time in India helped shaped his world view?

MW: Yeah, definitely. There's a wonderful film called Brother Outsider that came out in the early 2000s that's a kind of definitive biography of Bayard. And that film had all this footage. So, when I was doing research on this project, I saw that film and I thought, "Wow, there's all this amazing material." Something I didn't include was footage of Bayard debating Malcolm X.

WCT: It was surprising to see that Bayard and Walter's mother had such a strong connection.

MW: I thought it was touching, and it was sweet. But in a way, it's not surprising because they were from the same generation, so it kind of made sense, you know?

WCT: Do you think Bayard's Quaker upbringing influenced his approach to activism?

MW: Absolutely. I know that was kind of central to his methodology. I remember Walter saying that love was a foundation of the quaker faith and that was a guiding principle in a lot of [Bayard's] activism and philosophies on social organizing.

WCT: There was a line in the documentary that really struck me: "He was willing to step back from the forefront, for the greater good." It gives the impression that Bayard took a less visible role in civil rights because of his sexuality. Do you think that's true? Do you think that, in reality, he could have been as influential as someone like John Lewis?

MW: Yeah, I mean I think that's totally true and that, in a way, he was marginalized for being gay. And he was, you know, shifted to the background of the movement even though he was a really formative leader and influential within that moment.

Bayard & Me is on on Super Deluxe's social channels. See YouTube.com/superdeluxe.

Read the entire interview online at WindyCityMediaGroup.com .


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