In 1960, a gay civil rights activist who’d studied nonviolence under Mahatma Ghandi told his good friend Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, HBO’s ‘I May Destroy You’) to ‘find your power,’ but his inability to compromise with the likes of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) and the NAACP caused him to be thrown out of the inner circle. Three years later, he came up with the idea of a 100,000 man march on Washington and not only pulled it off, but reunited with King whose ‘I Have a Dream’ speech would be its centerpiece. His name was “Rustin.”
Laura's Review: B-
Reuniting with one of his “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars and working from a script by Julian Breece (TV’s ‘When They See Us’) and “Milk’s” Dustin Lance Black, director George C. Wolfe shines a spotlight on one of the most important figures of the civil rights movement who most people have never heard of. While the movie itself can be problematic - throwing too many events and characters at its audience in opening moments, leaning on Oscar bait speechifying and lurching through some bizarre tonal shifts – Colman Domingo’s transformational performance is so inspiring it is difficult not to get swept up in it.
Wolfe kicks off his film with several of the events which led up to Rustin’s march, but while documenting Anne Moody maintaining her dignity at a Woolworth’s lunch counter under attack by a white mob, he immediately had me questioning his depiction of Ruby Bridges as gaily skipping into school surrounded by U.S. Marshals. Before we can quite grasp what black congressman Clayton Powell Jr. is objecting to, Rustin, expecting a one-on-one, is called into a full boardroom to be told he’s out, close friend Martin Luther King part of the betrayal.
Bayard Rustin’s (Colman Domingo, "Zola") entire life story is incredible (athletics, Broadway with Paul Robeson), but “Rustin” takes the modern approach of focusing on one major event, in this case the 1963 March on Washington which he instigated and began to organize despite being unaffiliated with King or the NAACP. Rustin’s 100,000 target, which was thought pie-in-the-sky incredible, would actually end up as a quarter million people. Rustin’s two biggest sins were his inability to think small and the homosexuality he took no pains to hide, his lover at the time, Tom (Gus Halper, “Cold Pursuit”), a white civil rights activist. (One of the things the filmmakers are to be commended for is not to turn their subject into a saint, Rustin’s behavior, especially regarding his love life, sometimes hurtful as evinced by his seduction of a fictionalized married pastor (Johnny Ramey) while living with Tom.)
“Rustin” also gets at the push-pull of activism, illustrating how many black factions would work against each other while, in some of the film’s best scenes, portraying Rustin’s ability to galvanize his troops. ‘Do not kill an impulse before it’s born,’ he tells one naysayer and instantly the ideas begin to flow, excitement building. He entrusted such huge undertakings as organizing transportation to a young woman, Rachelle Horowitz (Lilli Kay, "August at Twenty-Two") and arranged for security with 200 unarmed black policemen. A young John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, "The Photograph") would disarm any concerns about the March’s pledge card by simply reading it. Rustin also pulled in all those who’d pushed him out, partnering with union organizer A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman, Domingo's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" costar) and reconciling with King, who would give his most famous speech that day (that reconciliation, unfortunately, is part of the film’s tonal whiplash, the scene where Rustin learns of the death of Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) immediately followed by one of him dancing and singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ with King’s children).
Domingo’s hair and makeup team have done a great job of making him look like Bayard, but it is the actor’s charisma and attention to detail which bring the man to life, Domingo thrusting out his lips as springboards for rousing speech. The film also stars Chris Rock as the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, “The Holdovers’” Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mahalia Jackson, CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman and Carra Patterson ("Straight Outta Compton") as Coretta Scott King. The production is modest, crowd scenes using few people shot in close-up to suggest many, but that look exchanged between Ameen and Domingo at the end of King’s speech speaks volumes.
Robin's Review: B
Everyone and his/her brother, who were around in 1963 (or studied the time), knows about Dr. Martin Luther King Jar’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the famous March on Washington. What most do not know, myself included, is that the man who planned it was a socialist, a “premature anti-fascist” and a gay man named Bayard “Rustin.”
As I watched director George C. Wolfe’s depiction of the events leading to and including the famous march, I was gob smacked that I did not know about the man who organized it. I wanted to know more about Bayard Rustin and what I learned is that he was a remarkable man on many levels. Look him up, it is worth the effort.
The film centers on Rustin, beginning with his being selected, despite his checkered past, to organize the 100000 person march on DC. His long-time history of radicalism and political non-violence, and the fact that he is gay, made him a controversial selection to prepare, in great detail, for the March. And, once he is chosen, he throws himself into it completely – and, as history shows, quite successfully.
This is the first time I paid notice to the film’s star, Colman Domingo as the titular character in this true story, and he commands the screen. The actor gives a full-bodied performance, including the man’s foibles, which capture the depth of Bayard Rustin. Unfortunately, the supporting cast, which is an embarrassment of riches of talented actors, are not given full dimension, keeping such historical black figures as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffery Wright), NAACP head Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), Civil Rights activist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Ami Ameen) as two-dimensional figures only.
The draw for “Rustin,” aside from the depiction of an incredible moment in American history, is the showcase performance by Colman Domingo. His portrayal of Rustin is nuanced as he moves between his public, activist life and his personal, controversial one as a gay black man. How Bayard dealt with his “scandalous” life in that puritanical, judgmental time is one of cunning survival. The actor impresses me.
Netflix releases "Rustin" in select theaters on 11/3/23 before it begins streaming on 11/17/23.