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Despite Obstacles, “Rustin” Succeeds

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 15th, 2023

Film poster: “Rustin”

Rustin (George C. Wolfe, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.

The first thing that most people no doubt recall when they think of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Spoken in front of 250,000 people, those words inspired many in the Civil Rights movement (and beyond) to action. We can draw a straight line from that moment to the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and equally (if not more so) 1965 Voting Rights Act (with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in between). And while no single person was responsible for the remarkable achievements of that era, one man did play an outsized role in the conception and organization of the march.

That would be Bayard Rustin, central focus of director George C. Wolfe’s new biopic, Rustin. Both Black and gay, he faced the usual racial discrimination of the time, with the additional burden of also suffering from the slings and arrows of his would-be fellow freedom fighters. Played by Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) with gusto galore, Rustin bursts off the screen like an unstoppable force of nature, full of ideas and the energy to put them into action. Unfortunately, he is also still very much human, and the obstacles he faces do, at some point, affect his morale.

Colman Domingo in RUSTIN ©Netflix

The film begins in 1960 with Rustin being kicked out of the NAACP; the then-leader of the organization, Roy Wilkins, played by Chris Rock (Amsterdam), does not come off well here. Neither does Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright, The Batman), who along with Wilkins is not happy that Rustin has recruited Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen, Boxing Day) to join him in a protest at the Democratic Party Convention in Los Angeles. They prefer to take more institutional and incremental approaches rather than completely rocking the boat. And so they spread rumors that Rustin and King are lovers, forcing the latter to join them in requesting the former’s resignation.

All of the above happens in a very snappy opening. In general, the pace of the editing here is rambunctious (much like the protagonist). Cut to 1963, and while the wounds of 1960 have not yet healed, Rustinnevertheless takes sudden inspiration, after hearing a speech by President Kennedy, realizing that no real progress will be made in the realm of racial justice unless the people come together to make their voices heard within shouting distance of the White House. The question then becomes, can he rally would-be allies who might stand against him because of his sexuality, and succeed in organizing the event?

l-r: Colman Domingo and Johnny Ramey in RUSTIN. Credit: David Lee ©Netflix

That becomes the central drive of the film, and though the script—by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black (Milk)—often devolves into speechifying sequences (the kind where characters speak in perfect soundbites about pressing issues), there is raw power in the unfolding of the narrative. Just as homophobes, racists, and conservatives couldn’t hold back Rustin, nor do occasional dramatic missteps hold back the movie.

The cast supporting Domingo is equally first-rate, among them Gus Halper (Holler) and Johnny Ramey (Breaking Girl Code) as two lovers—one white and one Black—who compete for Rustin’s affections. It’s a rousing affair, filled with an exciting behind-the-scenes reveal of a history we thought we knew. Flaws and all, it draws us in, and we emerge entertained, satisfied and deeply moved.

Jeffrey Wright in RUSTIN ©Netflix

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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