Rustin begins with mellow jazz flowing into scenes with a black schoolgirl happily skipping her way to school. She is escorted by law enforcement officers and military personnel. Other black students (along with a few white sympathizers) are seen chastised and hurled insults. The US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education proved to be a cornerstone decision that would eventually lead to the desegregation of the public education system in the United States of America. It laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Netflix’s latest bio-drama, Rustin, shines a light on one of the most overlooked yet no less critical figure of the movement, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo).
Rustin focuses on the period in Bayard Rustin’s life where he was integral in the planning, organization, and eventual success of the 1963 March on Washington. Brutal attacks on civil rights demonstrators, coupled with the Civil Rights Act being stalled in Congress, moved Rustin to call on black leaders to organize another march on Washington, this time with a lofty goal of over 100,000 participants. Rustin would oversee the logistics. Planning such a massive ordeal would not be his only challenge. Rustin would also need to navigate the politics of organizing such an event. His sexuality would have him at odds with other important figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) and Rep. Adam Clayton Jr. (Jeffrey Wright). Rustin’s beliefs would challenge him to face these odds, which was necessary for seeing out his essential task.
The same jazz score that introduces the film resonates throughout. Composer Branford Marsalis orchestrates a free-flowing score that adequately represents the imagery on display. However, unlike the improvisatory elements of jazz, the filmmakers stick to a urtext score to bring Rustin’s story to life. Director George C. Wolfe, along with writers Dustin Lance Black and Julian Breece, have crafted a tightly knit film focused on the pushbacks Rustin faced at the hands of not only racism but homophobia as well. Moments are dedicatedly focused on Rustin’s tumultuous love life and how it threatens to unravel the work he put in to orchestrate the march. Overall, the approach is simplistic and formulaic. Keener moments occur when filmmakers delve into the bipolarity of the civil rights movements. The irony is not lost, as prominent figures of the movement are at odds with Rustin’s homosexuality. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decide to correct course and ultimately take the movie down its preordained path.
Any layering and complexity to the character lies in the performance of Colman Domingo. He carries the film from the character’s on-screen introduction to the finale, where he humbly takes part in the culmination of the march. He infuses Rustin with undeniable charm and energy that mask the personal tribulations he was forced to endure. Rustin’s conviction lay in ensuring that the advancement of the civil rights movement should not be singular to one group but that it should extend to all who are marginalized and held as “lesser” individuals. Domingo understands this conviction and decidedly brings Rustin to life without missing a beat. It is a powerhouse performance deserving of awards recognition.
The rest of the cast supporting Domingo fulfill their duties, with Chris Rock as NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins being the weakest link. Of note is Glynn Turman as civil rights activist and organizer of previous marches A. Philip Randolph. Michael Potts also gets a showcase as the bombastic labor union organizer Cleveland Robinson. Turman matches Domingo’s conviction, delivering a powerful performance, while Michael Potts helps lend an energetic and healthy dose of comedic relief.
Rustin ultimately falls into typical biopic territory. Nonetheless, the film proves to be essential. The lasting image of the 1963 March on Washington is Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” Rustin pulls the curtain on all the behind-the-scenes forces at play that made that moment possible, none more powerful than Bayard Rustin. Historic accomplishments of such magnitude are made possible when passionate individuals with common intentions come together despite their differences and agree to work towards a shared goal. In this instance, the objective is equality for all. Rustin exemplifies this and shines a light on the magnetic force that brought these individuals together. Wolfe and his film create consciousness towards progress and the ongoing struggle of achieving equitability for all.