Many names from the frontlines of the civil rights movement are now household names. But history isn’t always written by the victors, and many prominent organizers were quietly omitted from the narrative to create a palatable image of non-violent protest in the battle against racism. Bayard Rustin was a key member of Martin Luther King Jr’s team and served as an organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. President Obama would declare him to be ‘an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all when he posthumously awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. You might not know his story because, as a Black gay man in the ’60s, he frequently found himself pushed to the sidelines of the movement he helped to create, often by his own supposed allies.
Netflix’s Rustin hopes to amend that problem, with the Obamas on board as producers and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote Milk, co-writing the script. It’s one of two Colman Domingo films that played at this year’s TIFF, and while it is the weaker of the pair (Sing Sing truly is special), his sheer dominance as an actor will encourage you to tune into both.
Domingo’s Rustin is a charmer, a witty show-off whose organizational skills make him a barnstorming presence to be in. He knows every minute detail required to make a protest on this scale work and he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, not even from the NAACP, who were keen to cut him loose when he and Dr. King got too disruptive. When it came time to get one of them out of the picture, it was easier to drop the gay man by claiming his sexuality, which was an open secret, would risk their hard-fought progress. That only motivates Rustin further, and watching him put together a team to whip this march into shape makes for the most propulsive parts of the film. If you love process-y stuff, this is for you.
The homophobia Rustin faces is mostly snide asides, references to him being Mrs. King or the issue of his ‘lifestyle’ mentioned as though they’re blasphemous. Rustin knows to expect dog-whistles from the enemy, such as Strom Thurmond who is heard on a radio lambasting him as both a former communist and a homosexual who was arrested in Pasadena for soliciting sex. It’s more pointed, though, when it comes from his own side. NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock, who seems uncomfortable in dramatic mode) thinks he and King are pushing too hard against their incremental feats of progress, while Representative Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is called out for putting his career progression before the cause. The FBI is sniffing around, his phones are probably being tapped, and to top it all off, the oasis of his local gay-friendly bar keeps getting raided by the cops.
The intersections of oppression are vast and oft-ignored. The battle for progress of any kind is long, hard-fought, and easily divided, both by those who seek to destroy them and those who get caught up in their own problems. This, alas, hasn’t changed. Rustin reveals the tensions for its eponymous protagonist, who is expected to set aside his sexuality like an old jacket in the name of working towards protecting Black rights. As he passionately declares, ‘You either believe in justice and freedom for all or you don’t.’
Rustin is also a passionate man, half-living with the white activist Tom (Gus Halper) and engaging in an affair with Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a rising civil rights figure who is married and set to inherit his in-laws’ church as their next preacher. Amid the cutthroat nature of politics, it’s behind closed doors where Rustin can feel like himself, even though he’s sharply aware that nothing about his own life is exempt from politics. Falling for a man of God who struggles to understand his desires as something other than a sin makes Rustin all the more furious at the nature of injustice (his anger is not with religion or God themselves so much as the ways that all institutions are prone to exclusion and fearmongering.)
There’s a lot going on here, even if the basic set-up is peak biopic. I mentioned in my Nyad review that this genre isn’t thrilled about the prospect of experimentation and seeks to keep its creative boundaries rather restricted. You definitely feel that with Rustin, which needs to add in a few ‘well, as you know’ conversations to fill in back story. Some activists have their names and occupations pop up on screen to keep you up to date with the ensemble, which only highlights how little we get of people like Medgar Evers. That also means we need those awards-hungry yelling moments, although they seem somewhat more fitting for a grand personality like Bayard Rustin than many other subjects (this is also a biopic focused on a subject - a Black gay activist - that such films are seldom interested in.) Director George C. Wolfe, who made Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and is a stalwart of Broadway, relies too heavily on period musical cues, even at times when it undercuts the emotion. Let Domingo and company do their jobs!
If the structure and beats of Rustin do not aspire to be more than a typical biopic then it’s Domingo who drags the film up a notch through the exceptional persuasiveness of his performance (but you do get, in my opinion, a greater sense of his capabilities in Sing Sing, another true life story that has a focus more expansive than a life story.) While Rustin plays by the numbers and makes something informative from it, Domingo carves his own path.
Rustin had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in cinemas on 3rd of November and on Netflix on 17th of November.