If you don’t know much about the civil rights movement leader Bayard Rustin, now is your chance to find out about who he was and why he was so pivotal to the historical cause. The opportunity arrives in the new Netflix film RUSTIN premiering in theaters this weekend and then on its streaming service on November 17th. It’s a shrewd film bio too in that it doesn’t attempt to tell a cradle-to-grave story, but rather, it focuses on one primary event that captures a robust portrait of its subject. In this instance, that event is the March on Washington in August of 1963. It’s an important part of our nation’s history and Rustin was, in many ways, the architect of it.
The film, directed with great flair by George C. Wolfe, and written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, concentrates on the months building up to the March and showing just how Rustin (a brilliant Colman Domingo) was just the right man for the Herculean task of organizing all the parts involved to make it happen. Ruskin envisioned the March as a ginormous gathering, a peaceful march to the nation’s capital to protest the failure of equal rights for Black Americans, and he knew that it needed depth and scale. That’s why he insisted on hundreds of thousands of participants, numerous celebrity or celebrated speakers, and a dramatic backdrop for the cause no less than the Lincoln monument itself, the shrine to the Great Emancipator.
It’s an inspiring story, told in an exuberant fashion to match the style of the man who made it happen. Director Wolfe matches Rustin’s energy from the first frames to the last with swift-moving scenes, quick-witted humor and dialogue, and a joyful soundtrack consisting mostly of bouncy and bold jazz written by Branford Marsalis. Wolfe has also assembled a tony cast to play the major roles including Jeffrey Wright, Chris Rock, Ami Ameen, Michael Potts, Audra McDonald, Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder, and Da’Vine Joyce Randolph. They all play the known key figures of the time and almost everyone crackles with verve too.
Still, this is mostly Rustin’s story, showcasing how his chutzpah was exactly what was needed to manage all the moving parts of the March, let alone overcome all of the obstacles placed in his path along the way. Quite often, the roadblocks were hesitant or less-than-forthright allies who should have been much more supportive. Martin Luther King (Ameen), for example, was reluctant to participate, not entirely sure he could trust his old pal to pull it off. Then there were NAACP chief Roy Wilkins (Rock) and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Wright), two politically wily movers and shakers, who felt that Ruskin’s homosexuality would harm the black cause.
With such tragic themes and unsavory history to include, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they make the film as buoyant as they do. And they accomplish such without shying away from Rustin’s outspoken nature, his baiting of his enemies, or his homosexual proclivity. All in all, Rustin was a man who lived and loved to the fullest, and Domingo plays every single note of his life with zeal, making him larger than life while still recognizably human. He captures Rustin’s swagger, charm, and insubordination vividly in one of the year’s best performances.
If the film lacks any drama, it’s that we know the outcome of the March – – it was an absolute triumph. King became the giant that he was after his “I Have a Dream” speech there, and television broadcast most of it live into the homes of Americans who were awakened to the cause. Perhaps what is most interesting about the film is its showcasing of how much work politics requires. It’s a fraught mix of heady vision and sweating a million little details, all of which Rustin had the bandwidth for. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it fascinating.
It’s a charming and clever feel-good film, echoing Rustin’s keen style and passions. RUSTIN showcases one person making a real difference, and for all Bayard Rustin did, he should never be forgotten.