When I first learned of the existence of Bayard Rustin, he instantly became one of my personal heroes. I also remember when more knowledge about him started to permeate certain corners of society—academia, politics, and the arts—I and others thought there should be a film made about him. This was probably two years before Ava DuVernay characterized Rustin in her film Selma. It was a brief appearance of the black openly gay communist Quaker activist but it was memorable and necessary to those like myself who needed to see different kinds of black leaders and black identities. So when I heard that a biopic of Rustin was coming in 2023 I thought, YES! And when I saw that Colman Domingo (Euphoria, If Beale Street Could Talk), an incredible, openly gay actor would play him, and that an incredible director in George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Lackawanna Blues) whom also belongs to the gay community, would be helming this movie, I thought, that’s the perfect pair for this. This was going to be good at least if not amazing.
Rustin, which is written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) and Julian Breece (Harlem) feels like watching real life events play out in a cinematic version, like the standard biopics our society has come to know.
The movie follows Rustin, already a known activist within organizing and liberation movements, as he attempts to put into action, a march on Washington D.C. to bring attention to the plight of black Americans. While doing this, he’s also trying to figure out his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. as the two have fallen out after King betrays him, kowtowing to the some of the heads of the NAACP. Rustin is disliked by a few of the leaders of the legendary organization like Roy Wilkins (played barely convincingly by Chris Rock) and Adam Clayton Powell (an amazing performance from Jeffrey Wright) because Rustin was openly gay. This actually happened. Even though as you'll see the ways Rustin is brilliant, charismatic, and compassionate, throughout the movie, Rustin’s biggest challenge to his goal is barely his blackness but his sexuality.
We’re introduced to Rustin almost haphazardly when in a scene with Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) and A. Phillip Randolph (Glynn Turman), both members of the civil rights movement, while all three are trying to convince Dr. King to take his rightful place as head of their movement. Rustin comes out of the corner of the room and just starts preaching to the preacher of all preachers out of nowhere. In photos of Rustin at meetings, at the March on Washington, and photos with he and King, he is either seen in the corner, seen on the side or in the back, or before the release of Selma, only survived in film clips and photos as he worked for the movement. Rustin’s introduction made sense, but the way the camera picks him up and maybe because of the writing, he comes off as just some guy—and it didn’t seem intentional. The scene seemed like a reenactment of events, almost stage play like (Wolfe is also a theater director) and not an introduction into a guy you’d want to follow.
If we go back just a few scenes, the opening of the film is a montage of images that represent two of the most known racist events during the civil rights era: the violence against the lunch counter protesters and the physical attempt to block black kids from integrating schools. Why not just show stock footage? It may have been a better a choice than a reenactment. But this choice makes the purpose of the movie understandable, and ultimately important, but again, like the heads of the civil rights movement, Wolfe and the writers leave Rustin unknown.
For a movie about a character who most Americans, black or non black don’t know about, the movie could have taken a route to making Rustin memorable even in a conventional genre film. Since Rustin is already unknown to us now, and to people in the 60’s as we see in the movie, the creators could have used intimacy with the story device of isolation to reveal more about Rustin, especially in moments when he's actually alone. There is a good amount of scenes where Rustin is by himself and thinking. Some scenes take place right after he's faced rejection, and there's barely any engagement with how he feels or how disappointments shape his worldview. Or say, at a mostly fun time, like when he goes to a party full of young activists who are dancing or venting about racism, both, intimate moments, the filmmakers don't allow him to reveal anything about himself. He doesn’t dance, he flirts a little--he’s just an activist.
Later on, he has a meeting with his friends and fellow activists to organize the march on D.C. and it is here where we are supposed to see his genius and his collaborative nature. But if you knew of him before this movie, his genius and team spirit is all anyone has ever heard about him. And this may be more of the reason why this movie was made: to show how important he was to the movement and to the work that is organizing.
Most of the action of the film, is made interesting and revelatory by showing how opposed to each other the black civil rights leaders were around the issue of organizing and of the existence of Bayard Rustin. But neither issues get Rustin down. Wolfe and the writers focus on showing how Rustin, more than anything was a master organizer and how his work kept him going while fighting for his existence as a black man and a gay man. Through the movie he’s almost at all times bringing people into the movement. Whether with his lovers at his apartment or at a bar, or with activists at organizing meetings. Rustin’s dialogue consists half the time of his real life quotes, which in the movie, has the ability to send people into self introspection and eventually become down for the cause. During NAACP meetings where like a teacher, he often brings the chaos of opposing ideas and opposing members back together, guiding them toward their overall goal. He even organizes the police. He almost comes off messianic.
While Domingo goes to great lengths to embody Rustin, when you see his mannerisms, his fears, his gentleness, his never ending passion, you don’t see where it comes from. There are moments when Rustin will react to another character baring their soul with a pained look that lingers through three or four cuts, and it’s not clear what Rustin thinks or feels. This happens often. These moments that are clearly supposed to add weight and bring us into Rustin’s inner world are too subtle, and along with the underwritten side characters, most of the scenes feel empty.
Any fullness in this movie belongs to showing the challenges of organizing. The best aspect about Rustin, is that it barely shows any racial violence as a way to give view to what was involved in social justice work. As the film shows, Rustin was not patient when it came to liberation, yet, in his work as an activist and in his belief in the philosophy of pacifism, his patience was probably his strongest asset. It also could be an important lesson for people today who are committed to liberation of marginalized people in an age where social media has the potential to make people either feel they are the second coming of Bayard Rustin or feel they're not doing enough. As long as you're committed, you're doing fine.
The most interesting part of the movie takes place a few days before the March on Washington when Rustin must find a way for the police to secure the march without using guns. In a warehouse, Rustin, a young intense organizer, named Blyden (Grantham Coleman) and about thirty black cops gather together for non violence training. This type of training was seen in Selma, and it consists of two people role playing—one person is a black person, the other a racist white person. In this case, Blyden plays a potential march attendee, and the cops play themselves. While Blyden yells at the cops, we see them fuming. One officer almost breaks, getting in Blyden's face and that’s when Rustin steps in. He says to them both, like an experienced teacher, “Good”. “Breathe”, he says. Right here, we can see how police officers today could be trained with patience, to have patience for those they’re supposed to protect.
The scene itself feels peaceful. A montage follows. The training continues and in a voice over we hear Rustin’s philosophy. “When facing an aggressor, move as one, work as one. If we desire a society of peace then we cannot have such a society through violence”. His words flow while the officers go through different drills. The officers makes this their own. This is important since some black police officers were (and still are) seen as traitors to black people, and within the police force, are still seen as second class citizens. Black police officers weren’t and are not always treated fairly by both communities. The way Rustin trains the officers as well as the organizer, allows him to help them destroy the negative concepts of force they were taught and destroy the feeling of alienation the two communities experience, and bring in new tactics, teaching the men and women how they can respect others humanity and their own. Rustin had the blueprint for change.
The other benefit of not focusing on racial violence was that more time could be spent seeing how Rustin was effected by morality laws and the criminalization of homosexuality within the NAACP and the country. Through Domingo’s performance, we see how Rustin dealt with these challenges. Even in his humorous and often passionate arguing, or conversing, or moments of intimacy, you can tell in the back of his mind, he was always aware that his sexuality could and would be used to deny his ideas. He never looks comfortable, even when he’s alone. He just carries on, making himself available for the movement, either sacrificing his space to the straight men in the NAACP or making sure he's a team player, or outsmarting all of his haters, white, black, and straight, and achieving his goals.
The movie does a good job of not making Rustin’s battles with not being accepted in society overstated. Most biopics would have pushed these issues as the moral conundrum and the moral lesson for the movie, telling us how to feel about them. Rustin does this some, but allows the main character’s plights to be apart of his life, so that when Rustin does give his big speech about his right for acceptance for being gay and black, it feels less like movie speech and more of a genuine expression of a person's truth. And while Domingo skillfully portrays Rustin to be someone who is intelligent, aware, and caring, it’s hard to believe that the real man didn’t think about his own feelings on friendship, love, his fears, or himself as an individual.
Rustin for its educational value, deserves a watch. The lack of interiority and creativeness makes the movie feel mostly like a standard biopic of the stereotypical gay man who lives in a world that doesn’t accept him. We’ve seen this kind of film, just this one stars a brown man. I know without knowing the real man that he was more than his struggles and his genius. I’m sure he knew this too.