Film review: Rustin (2023)

Bayard Rustin played a major role in the civil rights struggle in the US but his name is not nearly as well known as it should be. This film, streamed on Netflix, tries to correct that deficiency. It is not a full biopic since it focuses almost entirely on the eight weeks in which Rustin organized the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the National Mall that culminated with Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That drew about 250,000 people from all over the country and was instrumental in pressuring president Kennedy and the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act that had been stalled.

Rustin was multi-talented, a charismatic speaker and an indefatigable and inspiring organizer whom young people rallied to. His idea for the march met with resistance from the old guard Black establishment in the NAACP that wanted a more go-slow, less confrontational approach in dealing with Congress and Kennedy. Rustin allied himself with veteran labor leader A. Philip Randolph to argue that they could pull off a massive march in such a short time. Both sides vied to get King on board with their side. Rustin was an old friend of King and his family and once he got King’s agreement to speak, he went full throttle to get the event organized in just two months. It remains one of the landmark events in the fight for civil rights in the US.

In 1942, long before Rosa Parks did something similar that led to the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin refused to move to the back of a bus and was severely beaten by police for it, a scene that makes it into the film. As he described it:

As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the ring necktie I was wearing and pulled it, whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.”

If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, I owe it to that child, that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.

It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.

Rustin had to stay in the background because there were two things that his opponents, both within the Black establishment and the wider community, could use to discredit him and anything that he was involved with. One was that he was a socialist who had once been a member of the Communist Party. And the other was that he was a homosexual. This is partly the reason why his major role in the civil rights movement has not been fully appreciated.

Colman Domingo gives a fine performance in the title role. The internal divisions in the Civil Rights movement and the lack of prominence given to women are nicely fleshed out, with people like NAACP chair Roy Wilkins and flamboyant congressman Adam Clayton Powell trying, at least initially, to prevent the march. When it comes to casting, Chris Rock was unconvincing as Wilkins. His makeup to make him look older looked really fake. I suspect that Rock was cast so as to provide some star power to attract audiences. Jeffrey Wright was much better as Powell. Aml Ameen gives a nice understated performance as King and Audra McDonald as Ella Baker deserved a bigger role.

In a review of the film, Dustin Guastella criticizes the liberal people behind the film who toned down Rustin’s socialist class politics and his tireless efforts for worker rights. (It is sometimes forgotten that the march was for jobs and freedom and the film spends no time on discussing how that name came about). Instead it increased the emphasis on his gay life. The one made up character in a film otherwise populated with real people is a Black minister with whom Rustin has a brief relationship.

Rustin, directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, is largely a retelling of the mythic story of the civil rights movement but now with the addition of a new character — Bayard Rustin, played capably by Colman Domingo. Here once again is Martin Luther King Jr (Aml Ameen) as the savior and singular embodiment of the movement. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is presented as the apotheosis and catalyst for the triumph of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. But in order to seamlessly fit Rustin into this familiar narrative, the filmmakers depict him as the long forgotten sidekick of Dr King.

Anyone even passingly familiar with Rustin’s life and work should find this version offensive. Not because it fudges some historical details (it’s a movie), but because it’s an insult to Rustin’s actual contribution while shoving his political vision completely out of frame. In this way, Rustin does more to help us forget what Bayard actually stood for — especially his cutting critique of the failures of the Left — than it does to honor the man and his contribution.

While agreeing with the thrust of this critique, I still enjoyed the film and can recommend it for those who are unfamiliar with Rustin.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    When you have momentum on your side, go for it! The chance may not return.
    Consider how the ERA amendment got torpedoed in the 1970s once the regressives had time to organise a backlash. And the ‘go slow’ Clinton presidency saw his attempted health insurance reform get scuppered.
    When you have the momentum, get the steamroller up to speed and crush the enemy. Preferally literally, like when John Cleese drives a steamroller over an assassin.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    what Bayard actually stood for — especially his cutting critique of the failures of the Left

    Can’t have that -- people might get confused.

    Almost entirely offtopic: a few years ago, the then-newly female-led “Doctor Who” attempted a depiction of the civil rights movement, in an episode called “Rosa”. The very excellent Elizabeth Sandifer, author of the TARDIS Eruditorum, recently added and Eruditorum entry on that episode, and it’s… brutal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *