‘Rustin’ review: A vital spotlight on an overlooked and complex civil rights hero
Rustin. (L to R) Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

Lessons can be learned from history to help us in current struggles. The Civil Rights movement of the mid-1950s to the late 1960s is one of monumental milestones and lessons, not only because of its triumphs, but because of the nuance, complexities, and even contradictions that we can dissect and analyze. The new film Rustin takes on this task boldly by centering perhaps one of the movement’s more controversial figures—Bayard Rustin. The openly gay, former Quaker, one-time communist, Black man was no marginal figure to the movement, but one of the key players who helped to organize the historic 1963 March on Washington. Yet, he isn’t a household name like his close friends Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, and others he worked alongside.

The film takes viewers on a journey through several years in Rustin’s life that helped to shape his activism, and also the movement as a whole. It culminates in perhaps his greatest accomplishment of the Washington march. In this film journey, we bear witness to brutal displays of homophobia, red-baiting, racism, and hypocrisy that Rustin had to endure in order to give his expertise. The film is intense and unapologetic, yet still somehow manages to be a feel-good time.

Directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Colman Domingo, Rustin tells the story of the architect of 1963’s momentous March on Washington. Arguably one of the greatest activists and organizers the world has ever known, Rustin was an openly gay man at a time when it was still outlawed. Essentially, Rustin made history but has seemingly been forgotten in mainstream conversations on the topic. This is perhaps for several reasons, both to do with his sexuality and political leanings during the 1960s and perhaps even his turn to a more conservative political nature later on in his life.

Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist who was a close advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He worked with a number of groups through the years including serving as president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a civil rights organization in New York City, from 1966 to 1979. Regarding Rustin, King once wrote to a colleague: “We are thoroughly committed to the method of nonviolence in our struggle and we are convinced that Bayard’s expertness and commitment in this area will be of inestimable value.”

It can be argued that although Dr. King gave his world-renowned “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington—forever cementing it in history—there would have been no platform for King to give such a speech had it not been for Rustin’s organizing.

The film does not shy away from some of the infighting and contradictions within the Civil Rights movement. Some may feel that this will somehow tarnish the movement’s legacy by pointing out instances of red-baiting, homophobia, and sexism, but this reviewer feels it does the opposite. If anything, it showcases that despite those drawbacks the movement was able to make gains and that LGBTQ and women leadership was still strong enough to emerge. And that lessons can be gained to not make it so hard for those voices to be heard in today’s movements for equality and justice.

This is one of the strongest themes in Rustin. Viewers are treated to scenes of young people, women, and LGBTQ activists coming together to organize the historic march with so much passion and excitement. And even when they are at times met with gatekeeping, sexism, and homophobia, they still manage to focus on the work and bring the march to fruition.

Does this mean that some of the old-guard civil rights figures like Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Roy Wilkins don’t get painted with the kindest brush in the film? Yes. This may ruffle some feathers, but it also serves to show that historical figures are not perfect—even when they’ve been known to do great things.

It should be noted that Jeffrey Wright gives perhaps the second-best performance in the film as Rustin’s semi-adversary Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Rustin. Gus Halper as Tom, CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman, Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, Melissa Rakiro as Yvette, Ayana Workman as Eleanor, Lilli Kay as Rochelle, Jordan-Amanda Hall as Charlene in Rustin. © 2023 Netflix, Inc.

The film boldly puts a spotlight on Rustin, but also other segments of the movement that pushed for a seat at the table. Dr. Anna Hedgeman, played by CCH Pounders, was also an important organizer for the march. The film showcases the many times when Hedgemen spoke about the lack of Black women speakers in the march or recognition of their contributions to the movement.

It should be noted that the only woman allowed to speak during the official program was Daisy Bates, a journalist who was President of The Arkansas Conference of the NAACP. She reportedly spoke less than 200 words. This was not an isolated incident but gives an example of the sexism and misogyny Black women had to face inside of the movement as they too fought for equality and civil rights.

Rustin also serves as a way of introducing other figures that the general public may not know much about. Such as the aforementioned Hedgement, but also one of Rustin’s biggest supporters, labor unionist and civil rights activist A Philip Randolph.

It would be easy to boil down the film to a simple biopic about one particular figure. But Bayard Rustin, in this time during the 1960s, serves as more of a gateway to the vibrancy of the movement as a whole. Of all the activists from different walks of life—and even at times different ideologies—coming together for a greater purpose. Rustin is a film bursting with energy and movement. There are moments of sorrow, but this is balanced with moments of levity and joy. There are even some well-placed comedic laugh-out-loud instances.

None of this would come together without the powerful performance of Domingo. The vulnerability, resilience, and charm he brings to his performance of Rustin shines bright. Without this, certain scenes in the film would be lacking.

With some segments of the population believing history should be revised and/or completely ignored, Rustin comes right on time. It is not a somber film, but an empowering one. It does this by not shying away from the complexities of struggle and strategy. It is well worth the watch.

Rustin will be available in select theaters on November 3, 2023, and on the Netflix streaming platform on November 17, 2023.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.