Bayard Rustin made a massive impact on modern times, as the organizer of Martin Luther King, Jr’s hugely successful March on Washington in 1963. But you might wonder why you haven’t heard of him. Openly gay, his mere presence at the time made the very-image-conscious Civil Rights leaders nervous, so he was thusly marginalized in history by both the greater movement and the media as well. It’s about time that his story is told, but he deserves a better movie than this.
Rustin, somewhat confusingly, opens with the Civil Rights establishment, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), asking him to step away from his role as a key organizer due to murmurs of rumors being published that Rustin is having an affair with his close friend, rising star Martin Luther King, Jr. (Aml Ameen). Expecting his friend to step up for him, Rustin is surprised that MLK stays quiet. This rejection punts Rustin from the movement to an office job at a non-profit where he is kept out of the limelight. The man is too visible a distraction to the cause, the leaders think, when image is everything.
The film quickly jumps ahead a few years and stays there. It’s 1963 and things are heating up–America is waking up to the plight of Black Americans, MLK has become a known national figure (who has made up with Rustin in the meantime), and Civil Rights leaders know they have a magic window of public attention to make an even bigger impact. A March on Washington is proposed, but it needs to be pulled together in a seemingly impossible 8 weeks to take place at the end of August. Though the establishment is against it, Labor leader A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) anoints the dynamic Rustin to organize the event, to make the impossible possible. Students, unions, cops, church-going folks, and celebrities are pulled in to pull it off, culminating with hundreds of thousands of people converging in Washington, DC for the now-historic day that gave us Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Colman Domingo is marvelous as Bayard Rustin. I was unfamiliar with his work (or I simply didn’t recognize him), so he pulled me in from the first moment. He is fabulous portraying a dynamic character that is both witty and guarded, flamboyant and unapologetic. Domingo absolutely carries the film with his charisma. His Rustin is wholly believable as a man who could lead and inspire a group of “angelic troublemakers,” and his charisma carries the film.
But the rest of the film is… fine. I wish that Bayard Rustin got a movie as loud and exuberant and creative and confident as the man himself. The supporting cast is solid, making you want to rush to Wikipedia to find out more about important players like the loathsome black congressman Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) or the hardworking Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) or Rustin’s much-younger white lover Tom Kahn (Gus Halper), an activist himself. But there are so many folks that are name-dropped, and that come in and out of Important Meetings, that they become a jumble to the unfamiliar, more recognizable by the actors who portray them as opposed to the characters themselves.
Screenwriters Julian Brece and Dustin Lance Black seem to be treading too carefully and reverently around their subject. There is such an air of earnest perseverance about the whole thing, making sure to include as many famous quotes, pronouncements, and incidents as possible (don’t leave anything out!), that the moments of true emotion come as a startling surprise. For instance, when Rustin, surrounded by his youthful team of organizers, watches on TV as MLK addresses the latest media slander of Rustin that attempts derail the March’s credibility. Rather than throwing him under the bus, MLK publicly support his friend. Rustin breaks down sobbing in relief, reminding viewers of the extra burden and scrutiny that Rustin was under as an outlier in his own community.
But counter that with the moment that MLK finishes his famous speech at the March. He turns to find Rustin in the crowd behind him, gives him extended eye contact, then a firm, single nod of thanks. The moment is so cinematically eye-rolling, it may as well have been a slow clap followed by thundering applause. Rustin is literally left behind to pick up the trash while the rest of the movement’s leader go meet the President. Why not pause to acknowledge that fact for longer than a moment? Rustin, the gay man, being left behind as the rest go on to their places in history. It ends up being a wasted moment that should have been the emotional culmination of the story, providing a deeper resonance to his almost forgotten role in the Civil Rights movement.