The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is known to most Americans for Martin Luther King’s galvanizing “I Have a Dream” speech. That oratory milestone appears in Rustin, but from the perspective of the title character. He wasn’t in the spotlight that August day in 1963, but Bayard Rustin was the visionary conceptualizer and day-to-day driving force of one of the largest political rallies in American history. A riveting Colman Domingo, reteaming with director George C. Wolfe after Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, inhabits the role of a fascinating man whose name and story should be more widely known.
Working from a screenplay by Julian Breece (When They See Us) and Dustin Lance Black (When We Rise), Wolfe has made an admiring but nuanced feature that doesn’t aim for biopic completism or cause-and-effect formula. And though it doesn’t entirely avoid the awkwardness of explanatory mode, those moments are few, and they dissolve in the dynamic drive of Rustin’s mission to turn his idea for the protest gathering into a reality. And what a reality: The presence of an estimated quarter of a million citizens, most of them Black, spurred the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.
The Bottom Line
An overdue song of praise.
Rustin was an activist devoted to nonviolence and justice, and he was much more than that. Outside a more typical Black American experience, he was raised as a Quaker (in Pennsylvania). He was an accomplished athlete and a professional singer and musician — he recorded an album of spirituals and Elizabethan tunes, accompanying himself on, what else, the lute. And, crucially, he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime.
Domingo’s thrilling portrayal pulsates with the beauty of a man who’s at home in his own skin, unbowed by societal notions of shame. Without the slightest self-consciousness, his bright smile flashes a glaring gap in his teeth, the result of a police beating for taking a seat on a bus in protest. A few brief flashbacks like that violent scene weave crucial pieces of Bayard’s story into the action, but most of the film is concerned with the months leading up to the ’63 event. It’s exhilarating in its focus on the collaborative bonds, frictions and occasional internecine maneuvers among the Black political leadership of the era, played by an extraordinary cast.
There’s a period vitality to the movie (with Pittsburgh playing New York), but the production design by Mark Ricker and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes never outshine the characters.
Rustin opens with two fast-moving segments, enriched by Branford Marsalis’ vibrant score and cut with propulsive energy by Andrew Mondshein. The pre-title sequence encapsulates the state of American racial justice in the years after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education that segregation is unconstitutional. Next, a quickly covered piece of background reveals how the NAACP, under the leadership of Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), shut down Bayard’s attempts to organize a protest at the Democratic convention, and how the betrayal shattered his friendship and political bond with Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen, nailing the famous intonation and magnetism in understated fashion). It was Bayard, a devotee of Gandhi’s methods and philosophy, who made a convincing case to King about nonviolent resistance.
Working in the office of the War Resisters League, Bayard is subject to unasked-for psychoanalysis by his boss (Bill Irwin), and on his own time he’s dissed as irrelevant by young activists at a party in the apartment of his friend Rachelle (Lilli Kay). Something has to give, and he sparks to renewed life with an idea: a huge two-day demonstration for racial and economic justice in D.C. Soon he’s conducting living-room brainstorming sessions with some of those same young activists. The ideas flow, and Marsalis’ score swings.
One of his fellow organizers, a young white man named Tom (Gus Halper), is also Bayard’s lover. He often lives with Bayard, but he’s recognizing just how commitment-averse the older man is. Halper is terrific at showing Tom’s longing and hurt, especially after another love interest steps into Bayard’s life, a composite character named Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a preacher working with the NAACP. There’s a deliciously charged four-way intersection of undercurrents when, only moments after the reverend has made his sexual interest in Bayard crystal-clear, Bayard finds himself in conversation with the man’s wife, Claudia (Adrienne Warren), while Tom looks on.
When Bayard and Elias get together for many drinks at a Village bar, their chemistry is sweet and charged and promising. But Elias’ conflicted allegiances, affectingly played by Ramey, test them both. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler conjures an almost abstract quality to the sunlight in a scene when the men have a tough conversation.
And there’s a deep, warm glow to a wrenchingly beautiful scene where, over an intimate dinner, Bayard’s friend and fellow activist Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) reminds him of the depth of admiration and love between him and Martin, and how very powerful they can be together. “Go get your friend back,” she tells him. And soon he’s made the trip south, and the King kids flock around Uncle Bayard and he draws out the singer in Coretta (Carra Patterson) — lovely stuff, and a fine setup for the heart-to-heart between Martin and Bayard.
From there, Bayard builds a coalition that includes such elder statespeople of the movement as Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder, a joy), whose complaints about the lack of female speakers at the march didn’t actually change the lineup. Wilkins persists in his attempts to undermine Bayard, and an especially ruthless Sen. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright, superb) proves relentless in his dirty-dealing attempts to play the trump card — outing an out man, at a time when the phrase “a convicted homosexual” was a thing. But Bayard has another powerhouse of a Black establishment figure in his corner, A. Philip Randolph (an exceptionally powerful turn by Glynn Turman), the union organizer who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and pressured the government to end racial segregation in the military.
In the background are rumbles of resistance on the part of the Kennedy administration — suspicions that are confirmed in a delicious moment when John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) describes an Oval Office meeting to Bayard. Another meeting in the president’s inner sanctum closes the film, in a sense, but it’s offscreen, while Bayard Rustin turns his attention to more practical matters. It’s an exquisite moment, perfect in its simplicity.
Beyond the high-level subterfuge and negotiations and the romantic complications, Wolfe captures the grass-roots dedication and stamina that Bayard’s vision mobilized, the collective focus in turning a run-down building into a working office, raising funds, and sorting out the logistics of an unprecedented gathering. The hours and moments just before the caravans of buses converge on the nation’s capital fill the screen with a particular electricity, from the practical preparations of sign-making to a spontaneous gospel rendition. And at the center of the swirl of love and hope is a figure of fervent intelligence and idealism in action. In Domingo’s deft performance, whether he’s blasting a Mahalia Jackson record, taking a lover, challenging the power players or inspiring the volunteers, he’s vulnerable and resilient and, heroically, never untrue to himself.