Most people in the United States know of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But it wasn’t the first action to attempt to enshrine basic human rights. In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave Black people equal protection under the law. In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted Black American men the right to vote. The post-World War II era of Jim Crow basically nullified what was thought to be the freedoms earned by Black people were constantly challenged, often horrifically and violently. George C. Wolfe’s Rustin opens with a montage of the 1954 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in schools and shows us Ruby Bridges skipping to school, the Woolworth lunch counter incident and The Little Rock Nine to offer a glimpse into the history of non-violent protest that would be the bedrock for community organizer and openly gay civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, the architect behind the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest, and historically most well-known political rallies for human rights in United States history.
At a brisk 99 minutes, Wolfe, in his best feature film to date, dives right into the screenplay by Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and Julian Breece based on a story by Breece. It’s 1960 and Rustin (Colman Domingo), with good friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), are looking for their next target for passive resistance after the huge success of MLK’s leading the Mobile, Alabama bus boycott that kicked off in 1955 shortly after Rosa Parks was famously arrested and fined for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, all of which led to the U.S. Supreme Court to force Montgomery to fully integrate its bus systems. The two turned their eyes to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960 that ultimately nominated Senator John F. Kennedy for president. This moment serves as one of several ‘sitting around a table talking’ sequences in the film that are rarely anything less than elucidating the ‘from the ground up’ processes of these fights for civil rights, their genesis and with fresh editing from Andrew Mondshein (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), the jazzy and vibrant score by Brandford Marsalis and wide lensing by Tobias Schliessler (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), they’re crackling with life, purpose and propulsion.
For a brief time he takes on a desk job at the War Resisters League but quits when his boss (Bill Irwin) dresses him down after Rustin confronts a co-worker on the state of his inherent privilege as a white man in this fight. He quits but not without a brilliant moment recalling the experience of Black churches enthusiasm, clapping and celebration being its own version of passive resistance. He encounters a group of much younger rebellious protestors at a party who have no idea who he is (but boy, will they), including white freedom fighter Tom (a fantastic Gus Halper), who would become his assistant/lover/flavor of the month but with whom his bond was real. When a slightly flamboyant preacher named Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) enters Rustin’s circle, their quiet but traditional courtship (including finding themselves in a local bar that caters quite specifically to paired white and Black men) offers a momentary safe haven but one that won’t last long in the current climate.
As the plans of the beginnings of the March on Washington are being laid, Rustin and MLK are given intense pushback from the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP in 1963 and played by Chris Rock (who oddly resembles Rustin even more than Domingo here). The NAACP doesn’t see a path for a protest as large as the 100,000 they want and Wilkins pits MLK against openly gay Rustin when a false rumor of the two friends being lovers begins to percolate thanks to House representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (who represented the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the United States House of Representatives from 1945 until 1971). Jeffrey Wright plays Powell with gusto as a juicy villain, referring to the pair as “Martin Luther King and his Queen.” Rustin calls MLK’s bluff and resigns from the committee thinking that King would have his back but in a moment of weakness he shuns Rustin, resulting in a shocking breakdown. Audra McDonald shows up briefly as fellow activist and friend Ella Baker, who consoles Rustin but also pushes him to “Go get your friend back,” giving him the strength to do so.
Colman Domingo has several times proven himself to be one of our vibrant actors, from his Emmy-winning turn on HBO’s Euphoria to If Beale Street Could Talk and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Domingo has consistently given supporting performances that bolster whatever project he’s in but for Rustin, finally being given his first lead role in a major motion picture, he’s more than up for the challenge, and like Rustin himself, he exceeds it. It’s a career-defining performance, one of tender vulnerability and clashing anger that feels built on a passion of hundreds of years. While he’s given several magnificent speechifying moments in Rustin, none is more poignant and powerful than his final conversation with MLK before the nitty gritty of the march gets underway. Pleading with his friend how tired and frustrated he is to be “forced to justify my existence” and detailing that so often “We do the work of our oppressors by oppressing ourselves for them,” it’s a moment where the cross-section of Black civil rights and LGBTQ civil rights meet in the film and Rustin isn’t simply Domingo’s chance to shine, it’s recognizing that it’s time to shine the light on him.
The film is executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground and you can’t escape the similarities between Rustin and Obama (both beginning as community organizers) and at one point Rustin walks up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a tan suit that evokes when Obama wore one during a press conference to discuss escalating forces against ISIS. As we all know, Obama was heavily criticized by conservatives for being “unpresidential” even though Republican President Ronald Reagan had worn the same at a White House meeting in 1982. It’s a clever moment in the film and one that easily connect our past to our future and in 2013, President Obama chose Rustin to posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As the preparations for the March get closer (everything was essentially put together in less than eight weeks), Rustin’s young team of freedom fighters, including those who knew nothing of him just months before, go above and beyond in their accumulation of buses, funding, water, urinals, and even 1000 Black NYC cops who agree to provide security without their weapons. The coalition of higher ups continue to hem and haw over details including Anna Arnold Hedgeman (a wonderful CCH Pounder), who fights to have women as speakers and one of Rustin’s longtime supporters A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman, in a performance on fire), who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, continues to be one of his strongest and most powerful allies in the face of Powell releasing details of Rustin’s Pasadena incident in 1953 involving ‘lewd acts with two other men.’ It’s in this moment that Rustin’s supporters come through for him the most as they are all on the precipice of history.
Once we get to the March itself, and the real life montages of buses with thousands of people making their way to D.C. and spreading out over the National Mall in not numbers totalling 100K but 250K, it’s MLK, after his “I have a dream” on the pulpit in front of Lincoln Memorial, who looks back at Rustin with the deepest admiration of this great success.
August 28 was the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the main catalyst for what would lead to the 1964 Civil Rights Act mentioned above. But even laws and amendments are not the final answer they intend to be. 60 years later southern states like Florida are actively removing crucial elements of Black history from school books (or just banning them altogether) and reframing our shared history. That goes for LGBTQ rights as well, being stripped away daily, criminalizing behavior and sending us into a dark age once again.
“Own your power, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” King once said. One thing Rustin and his “angelic troublemakers” always knew was, in the face of those darkest days and how muster the courage and strength to fight on to the next was “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” It’s both of those thoughts that have carried us through decades of fights, of battles won and lost and ones we have yet to face but the time is always right for social dislocation and creative trouble.
This review is from the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. Rustin will be released in select theaters on November 3 and on Netflix November 17.