The 1963 March on Washington did not merely come together on its own via a whim, a wish, and good will. It took years of strategizing, planning, building coalitions, dodging bureaucratic obstacles and opponents both within and outside the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Students and veteran activists worked phone lines, sweated over the details (how many latrines do we need? how many can we get?), and sought out allies of all stripes from across the country. What happened on that hot day in the District of Columbia on August 28th was due to the combined effort of dozens of people who banded together for a common cause. Yet it’s not inaccurate to say that it was one person in particular who helped turn the rally in the nation’s capital from a lot of theoretical ideas on a whiteboard into a world-shaking event. Because Bayard Rustin had a dream. And because of his efforts, that dream of a massive peaceful gathering demanding freedom at last became a reality.
Rustin, the new movie from director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) that hits Netflix on November 17th, is gracious enough to spread the credit around for that pivotal moment in American history. There are a number of scenes set in modest but crowded apartments, where bull sessions about the proper way to practice passive-resistance protests are treated like collective “Eureka!” moments. For every sequence in which Rustin himself suggests ways to mount this huge undertaking, there are twice as many involving fellow Civil Rights leaders coming to consensual, if contentiously debated decisions, offices full of folks working phones, volunteers doing outreach far and wide. (When was the last time you saw a wild and woolly fundraising montage?) The idea for a march on Washington wasn’t a new one — both Rustin and his comrade in civil disobedience, A. Philip Randolph, nearly pulled it off in the 1940s before F.D.R. pulled the plug, and the duo’s partnership is presented as a key factor for the successful 1963 version. The whole movie could almost pass for a procedural regarding how the sausage gets made when it comes to grassroots political actions writ large.
But there’s a reason this movie is called Rustin, and not, say, March or Freedom. Wolfe may have gone on record as saying he hates the concept of the biopic. Yet he’s definitely made a boilerplate one, using one brief period in Rustin’s life as he organized the march to chronicle the man’s life and his legacy. It opens with a roll call of pivotal post-segregation stands against racist Southerners and screams You’re Watching An Important Movie even if you didn’t know who Bayard Rustin was. (Not a coincidence that this movie hits the streamer right as the awards season begins loudly clearing its throat.) The film gives its subject the respect and reverence he deserves, burdened with flaws yet blessed by having bent the arc of the moral universe closer to justice; during an early scene in which his friend Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) doesn’t defend him to the NAACP, you half expect a cock to crow three times. And its bench of big-name actors playing major figures is deep: Glynn Turman as Randolph, Jeffrey Wright as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman, Audra McDonald as Anna Baker (who gets one hell of an Oscar-clip speech), Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mahalia Jackson.
Wolfe also knows that he has one ten-story-tall ace in his hand, however, and that none of the above would matter as much if he didn’t have that card to lay on the table. Colman Domingo has always been one of those clutch supporting actors that you love to see show up in something, whether he’s playing a pimp (Zola), a pastor (Without Remorse), a school principal (Assassination Nation), good guys (Selma), bad guys (Fear the Walking Dead), fathers (If Beale Street Could Talk) or father figures (the last season of HBO’s Euphoria). His versatility is off the charts, yet he’s rarely been given leads outside of theater work.
To see his Bayard Rustin is to think that he may have been born to play this role, or at least this particular interpretation of Bayard. When we’re introduced to him, he’s already springing into action, goading MLK to be the leader of the movement outside of the South: “Own. Your. POWER!” He’s only been onscreen for a few minutes, and his Rustin is instantly persuasive, insanely charismatic, and positively inspiring. That’s just the start. Domingo knows that, in addition to the responsibility of bringing to life a genuine American hero, he’s also been given a chance to play the scales with a firebrand who contained multitudes. There’s rage and defiance, woundedness and wit. Told he’s irrelevant by the new generation of young, militant activists, Rustin replies, “It’s Friday night — I’ve been called worse.” It’s a sure-fire funny, campy line, but it’s the way that Domingo puts such a deliriously Teflon spin on it that makes it sing. Rustin is filled with such moments, when the actor takes everything from platitude-like declarations to punchlines to achingly sincere pleas and transforms them into something nearly transcendent.
It’s tough to think of another actor who could take the film’s buried lede of a mission statement and make that feel like you’re getting a real glimpse into a complicated man’s compartmentalized life as well. The setting: Rustin has just been publicly outed by Senator Strom Thurmond via a radio broadcast, a fact that puts the march in jeopardy. The motivation: He’s trying to convince MLK to not let their fellow leaders in the movement push him away. The line: “On the day that I was born Black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom or justice for all, or they do not.” Rustin is, in so many ways, a reclamation of an iconic freedom fighter tucked away too long in the dustier corners of history, and often overlooked as one of the architects of the movement. (He’s also a hall-of-fame organizer, which surely was not lost on the co-owner of the film’s production company — a former organizer named Barack Obama. Game recognizes game.)
But what Wolfe and the movie’s screenwriters Justin Lance Black (Milk) and Julian Breece (When They See Us) also want to reclaim and recenter in this story was Rustin’s experience as a gay man, and to give that as much due as his ability to rally the troops. His open attitude toward his sexuality made him a divisive figure among his peers and fellow Black power players; it also made him a target for blackmail and a potential liability, considering the times. Many filmmakers might have simply started and stopped there on the topic — another obstacle of prejudice to overcome on the road to victory. Wolfe and Co. go much further, letting us spend time with Rustin and his lover Tom (Gus Halper), and mapping out Rustin’s affair with a married preacher (Johnny Ramey) as it goes from flirtation to lust to the fallout. That subplot may end in heartbreak, yet none of it is downplayed. The fact that they not only emphasize this part of his journey but also integrate it and show Rustin as someone happy, loving and self-accepting when it came to his sexuality only sweetens the deal, thematically and otherwise. “Equality for all” should never come with caveats.
Rustin ends where it needs to end, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as “I Have a Dream” echoes across the national mall and Bayard stands off to the side, basking in his friend’s moment and the monumentalness of it all. Then, as the rest of his cohorts go to meet with President Kennedy, Rustin lets them have their victory lap and he goes to pick up trash, because that’s what a real organizer does. The music swells, the camera pulls back, and you’re reminded that a prestige-movie biopic is still a prestige-movie biopic no matter what you call it.
Yet Domingo makes you feel like it’s more than that every time he opens his mouth, breaks into a sunshine-ray smile or crinkles his face in anger and disgust. Wolfe has pushed an unsung hero out of the shadows and into the spotlight, but what’s truly amazing is how he manages to do it twice at once, for both the subject and the film’s star. And if Rustin only gives you a slice of a story — you could make seven different films out of his life and achievements — it assures you walk away knowing who Bayard Rustin was. The same can be said for Colman Domingo. Attention must be paid a hundredfold.