Rustin Introduces Bayard Rustin to a New Generation

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin. Photo credit: Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023.

A new Netflix film, Rustin, introduces the mostly forgotten Civil Rights leader/organizer Bayard Rustin to a new generation.

When they were choosing the dates for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin (Colman Domingo) played a key role in the choosing the dates. The initial planning was for a two-day event but it later turned into a single day event. However, Rustin advocated against holding it on Friday so that Jews could attend. While it’s not related to the film, Rustin was also a supporter of both Israel and Zionism until the day he died and it was still the case even after the UN started turning their back on Israel. He was also an advocate for the Soviet Jewry movement. I’m sharing this because I knew absolutely nothing about the guy going into the film. It really speaks to how forgotten he is as a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Did this have anything to do with his being gay? I do not know.

What did we learn about the man while watching the film? He was not afraid to challenge authority figures, be it NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) or anyone else, as he refused to back down from his beliefs. He wasn’t apologetic either. And yet, despite having differences with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), the two had enough commonality to lead a historic march in the nation’s capital. They were able to bring various organizations of the Big 6 together when it looked like it would be an impossible feat. If not for getting in touch with Dr. King, there’s no way that the March ever happens or Dr. King becoming an American icon. It’s possible that Dr. King would reach the stratosphere but the I Have A Dream speech was a necessary step to get there.

(L to R) Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson, Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr., Chris Rock as NAACP Exec. Dir. Roy Wilkins, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young in Rustin.
(L to R) Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson, Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr., Chris Rock as NAACP Exec. Dir. Roy Wilkins, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young in Rustin. Photo credit: David Lee/Netflix © 2023.

As far as biopics go, Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black’s script focuses on a narrow amount of time–in particular, organizing the March. They don’t make it a Wikipedia movie as other screenwriters tend to do. I mean, if you’re going to give the man his place back in history, why not go with the March? When it comes to the actual March itself, they expertly mix the archival footage with footage shot for the film with 250 extras on location. That certainly has to be among the most challenging moments for filmmaker George C. Wolfe. What sets Rustin apart from similar leaders is that he was from the north and is a Quaker. Many of his colleagues came from the South. He met Gandhi during a trip to India and practiced non-violence. It is the same form of non-violence that Dr. King would later utilize.

President Barack Obama was able to right a historic wrong a decade ago in posthumously presenting Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Was it too late? Oh, no doubt about it because the damage had already been done. The Obamas’ Higher Ground production company is also among the backers of the biopic. It’s their way of giving him back his long overdue recognition in history. That being said, the film does take some dramatic liberties. Elias (Johnny Ramey) is a composite character in the film. We do not exactly know who he represented in real life. Where Bayard is out, Elias is closeted. At the same time, things are still closeted compared to today’s standards.

Rustin, MLK, A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Cleve Robinson (Michael Potts), Whitney Young (Kevin Mambo), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), Ella Baker (Audra McDonald), and Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) were all apart of a historic movement that sought change. Their methods may have been different but they fought for what they believed in. Even during the fight for change, it was a bigger mountain to climb for women.

Rustin is a long overdue biopic with a shining performance from Colmon Domingo.

DIRECTOR: George C. Wolfe
SCREENWRITERS: Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black
CAST: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, Lilli Kay, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Jakeem Powell, Grantham Coleman, Jamilah Rosmond, Jules Latimer, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, Frank Harts, Kevin Mambo, Carra Patterson, Bill Irwin, Cotter Smith, Adrienne Warren, with Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald

Netflix released Rustin in theaters on November 3, 2023 and will start streaming on November 17. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.