It’s not easy to upstage Martin Luther King Jr., but that’s exactly what leading man Colman Domingo does in “Rustin,” a movie named for the civil rights pioneer who gave King the platform to speak his most famous four words: “I have a dream.” That day, Aug. 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the man standing slightly out of focus over King’s right shoulder — quite literally, his right-hand man — was one Bayard Rustin. It was he who conceived and organized what King called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” the March on Washington.
While widely recognized for his contributions to the civil rights movement (and posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama), Rustin is hardly the household name one might assume from his achievements — and worse still, he was nearly elbowed out of history altogether on account of his homosexuality. Directed by George C. Wolfe with the same passion and conviction that defined its subject, “Rustin” reminds that the pursuit for equality has never been and should never be satisfied with the advancement of a single group. “When we tell ourselves such lies, we do the work of our oppressors,” Rustin says in a firecracker script filled with so many great slogans, you’ll want to go out and buy a bigger bumper.
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Credit for those words goes to Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), two screenwriters with valuable experience sticking up for Black and LGBT causes. With “Rustin,” they’ve crafted a compelling look at a lesser-known hero, presenting him not as a figure for sainthood, but as a well-rounded human being whose private life and flaws inform his identity and his accomplishments.
The movie opens in 1960, when Rustin and King (a low-key Aml Ameen) are already good friends. Inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Rustin seeks avenues for peaceful protest, convincing King to lead a march of 5,000 people. (One of the movie’s limitations is that it’s not prepared to show a march of 5,000 people, much less one of 250,000.) For this prologue, at least, it doesn’t have to, as Rustin’s ambitions have a way of rankling the NAACP, which disapproves of the plan, as the organization later will the March on Washington, the movie reveals. Opponents — first represented by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) — threaten to spill the tea on “King and his queen,” and so Rustin tenders his resignation, thinking that King will refuse it. The board calls his bluff, and Rustin is sent packing.
This humbling moment is a smart place to start, as it demonstrates just how much Rustin has to lose, both personally and professionally, if his next plan — a two-day March on Washington — should fall through. But that doesn’t stop him from pitching the most ambitious gathering ever mobilized on the nation’s capital. Nine years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled segregation unconstitutional, but discrimination still defined much of the American South, and Rustin believed that a unifying march would show solidarity. Staunch trade unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) had his back, as did Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) in meetings with NAACP honcho Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock, posing as the movie’s key adversary).
Anyone who has ever participated in advocacy will recognize the truth this movie acknowledges that supposed allies — those ostensibly fighting for the same cause — can often be tougher adversaries than the opposite side, as in-fighting and ankle-biting threaten to derail a movement. The French film “BPM,” focused on ACT UP Paris in the ’90s, illustrated that most acutely, but “Rustin” acknowledges it as well. Apart from a few shots of law enforcement neither serving nor protecting, but turning fire hoses on Black demonstrators on the evening news, and a wrenching flashback to the 1942 police beating that “rearranged” Rustin’s face, the movie does not indulge in re-creating the racial hatred its characters are crusading against.
Instead, Rustin takes the high road — or in one case, he actually turns the other cheek. As depicted by Domingo, Rustin is tall and slender, with thick-framed glasses and a penchant for singing (a carryover from his Quaker upbringing), but his defining feature is the gap in his upper front left teeth. Audiences notice it before Rustin has a chance to explain, but when he does, they realize the injury now serves as a badge of honor for a man who did not hide who he was or what he’d endured.
The same applies to his sexuality, which is more progressive than Black’s depiction of “Milk” was (then again, that film was campaigning for marriage equality and had to sell the idea that Harvey Milk wanted a life partner). By contrast, this script acknowledges Rustin’s relationship with a younger white assistant, Tom (Gus Halper), but doesn’t pretend that Rustin was interested in monogamy at this point in his life. A significant subplot of the film involves a fictional lover named Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married Black preacher close enough to the movement to jeopardize both of their careers.
Dealing with that dimension of Rustin’s persona may alienate more conservative Black viewers, who can often be convinced to vote against their best interests when wedge issues like LGBT rights are raised in campaigns. But it is essential to the film’s own politics, which don’t end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as what ultimately happened with Rustin when Sen. Strom Thurmond publicly outed him as a Communist and a “pervert” (claims “Rustin” takes seriously enough to keep the film from lapsing into hagiography). What follows is the film’s big emotional peak, leaving the climactic march looking somewhat meager by comparison.
To pull off what the finale calls for, the movie would have needed either a bigger budget, better visual effects or 250,000 extras. After standing up to an unhelpful-to-the-point-of-hostile D.C. police chief (Cotter Smith), Rustin finds himself on a near-empty National Mall the morning of the march, asked by journalists when the crowds are supposed to attend. He’s clearly nervous. Wolfe gives us a couple shots — one of a series of trucks driving past the Lincoln Memorial, another of 100 or so people carrying placards — and then switches to archival footage. But it’s not enough to provoke the reaction he wants from audiences when the full scale of the assembly is revealed.
But that’s a quibble, since King — and Mahalia Jackson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the gospel singer whose prompt, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” provoked King to push aside his speech and extemporaneously deliver his most famous words — made history that day. “Rustin” expands that history to include a man whose crusade still continues.
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