Though it’s difficult to surpass Martin Luther King Jr., leading man Colman Domingo succeeds well in the film “Rustin,” which bears the name of the civil rights activist who provided King with the opportunity to utter his most well-known four words: “I have a dream.”
On August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, King’s right-hand man, or rather, the guy standing just out of frame over his right shoulder, was none other than Bayard Rustin.
He was the one who came up with the idea and coordinated the March on Washington, which King referred to as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Despite being widely acknowledged for his contributions to the civil rights movement and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama after his death, Rustin is not as well-known as one might think based on his accomplishments.
To make matters worse, his almost drove him out of existence. “Rustin,” which is directed by George C.
Wolfe with the same fervour and conviction that characterised its subject, serves as a reminder that the goal of equality has never been fulfilled with the growth of a single group and never shall be.
“When we tell ourselves such lies, we do the work of our oppressors,” Rustin declares in a screenplay that is so brilliantly written and full of catchy phrases that it will make you want to go purchase a bigger bumper.
In 1960, when the film begins, Rustin and King (a subdued Ameen) are already close friends. Motivated by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, Rustin looks for nonviolent protest channels and persuades King to organise a 5,000-person march।.
(One of the film’s shortcomings is that it isn’t ready to depict a march with even 5,000 participants, let alone one with 250,000.) At least not for this prologue, as Rustin’s goals tend to enrage the NAACP, who opposes the plan and, as the film depicts, will eventually participate in the March on Washington.
Rustin offers his resignation, believing King will reject it, after opponents—first represented by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright)—threaten to spill the tea on “King and his queen.” When the board calls his bluff, Rustin is dismissed.
This humble moment is a good place to start because it shows how much Rustin stands to lose in terms of his reputation and career should his next proposal, a two-day March on Washington, not go out.
He nonetheless proceeds to propose the most audacious assembly ever organised in the country’s capital. Even though the Supreme Court had declared segregation unlawful nine years prior, prejudice still characterised a large portion of the American South, and Rustin thought that a uniting march would demonstrate solidarity.
He had the support of stalwart trade unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) during talks with NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock, who plays the film’s main antagonist).
As in-fighting and ankle-biting threaten to collapse a movement, everyone who has ever engaged in advocacy will recognise the fact this film acknowledges: those who appear to be allies — those battling for the same cause — can frequently be harder foes than the other side.
This was most poignantly shown in the French film “BPM,” which followed ACT UP Paris in the 1990s; yet, “Rustin” also notes it.
With the exception of a few scenes on the evening news showing law enforcement not protecting but rather using fire hoses on Black protestors, and a heartbreaking flashback to the 1942 police beating that “rearranged” Rustin’s face, the film does not engage in reproducing the racial hatred that its protagonists are fighting against.
The same is true of his , which is more progressive than Black’s portrayal of Harvey Milk in the movie “Milk” (albeit that movie was pushing for marriage equality and had to make the case that Milk desired a life partner).
In contrast, this screenplay does not pretend that Rustin was interested in monogamy at this stage in his life, even if it does mention his connection with Tom, a younger white assistant (Gus Halper).
A prominent storyline in the movie centres on a fictitious partner, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), who is a married Black pastor who is enough involved in the movement to put both of their careers in danger.
Addressing that aspect of Rustin’s character might turn off more conservative Black viewers, who are sometimes persuaded to vote against their own interests when campaigns bring up divisive subjects like LGBT rights.
However, it is crucial to the movie’s politics, which continue after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to the final events involving Rustin, who was publicly exposed by Sen.
Strom Thurmond as a Communist and a “pervert”—claims that “Rustin” takes seriously enough to prevent the movie from devolving into hagiography. The film’s major emotional apex is reached next, making the final march appear somewhat tame in contrast.
The film would have required a larger budget, greater visual effects, or 250,000 extras to carry off what the ending demands.
After confronting a rude and useless D.C. police chief (Cotter Smith), Rustin finds himself on a mostly empty National Mall the morning of the march, where he is questioned by reporters about when the throngs are expected to arrive.
He is obviously anxious. After giving us a few pictures, one of vehicles passing the Lincoln Memorial and another of perhaps a hundred people with banners, Wolfe cuts to archive material.
But when the whole extent of the assemblage is disclosed, it is insufficient to elicit the response he desires from viewers.