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‘Rustin’ has Colman Domingo’s acting prowess take center stage in a conventional portrait of the civil rights titan

Director George C. Wolfe weaves all of the complexities of Rustin’s life within the biopic. While they neatly fall in place, Domingo brings it home.

David Lee/Netflix

The 1963 March on Washington was one of the most historic moments during the Civil Rights Era, let alone American history. There, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech that stands today as a pillar to bring people together and has even been used by bad faith actors in their arguments to quiet certain parts of the horror concerning racism and prejudice. While King Jr. stood at the podium and gave those words, the foresight and tenacity of Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) helped will it into existence.

Rustin tasks itself with showing the monumental effort that went into the execution of one of the biggest social demonstrations on record, and the roadblocks almost derailed it. Director George C. Wolfe and writers Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black also look to capture the complexities around the man himself in a more streamlined fashion. When you look at the DNA of Baynard’s life, there’s a lot to consider. He grew up as a Quaker living with his grandparents in Pennsylvania, was briefly a part of the Young Communist League, believed in the principles of non-violent protest, and was openly gay when it was highly hostile to be both Black and queer. Not to mention, he knew his way around playing a lute as a musician.

All of these aspects in Rustin are brought to life by Domingo’s prominent devotion to making him come alive on screen. He’s flamboyant, whip-smart, charming, and at points shaken from the quick flashbacks of police brutality he experiences. As quickly as Domingo’s dialogue can overtake you and stir up the fire within you, the quiet, contemplative moments when the world catches up to him are just as effective.

This film doesn’t begin with the great triumph of the speech, but rather with political strife and tension in gaining rights within the Black community. Bayard tries convincing Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen) to march at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. The NAACP, headed by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), had other plans and shut down any overture that this would happen. With this, there were threats to out Rustin’s sexual identity by higher-ups, leading to the breakdown of the friendship between Rustin and King Jr.

Rustin falls out of sorts for a spell. There are divisions within the civil rights movement on handling things from the higher and ground levels. From the NAACP's standpoint, they believe in the albeit slower process of legislative jockeying, and the philosophies of non-violent protest begin to wane on many of the younger activists in the field. Rustin’s stint working in the War Resisters League office and withstanding some unneeded advice from his boss (Bill Irwin) doesn’t last long. An impassioned plea from fellow activist Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) leads Rustin to make amends with King Jr., and the ball gets rolling on completing the march happen.


The thing that acts as the center point of this biopic is the electrically charged planning sessions that went into making the Washington event happen. Domingo leads with his charismatic charm that makes you believe something of this magnitude can happen within a two-month radius. Wolfe also uses this as a pivot point to slightly dive into Rustin’s romantic relationships from two vantage points. Tom (Gus Halper) is Rustin’s aid and love interest, who’s younger and can’t seem to capture the attention from him that he desires. Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) is a preacher working with the NAACP. He is married and on the cusp of taking over the church congregation from his wife Claudia’s (Adrienne Warren) father.

They engage in a secret love affair where the battle between being your whole self in a world that hates it versus the confines of religion collide. It’s not only that Rustin can’t seem to find peace in his personal life, but the question of his sexuality can be used against him at any time if he “falls out of line.” There’s an amazingly tense scene with Sen. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) where this comes to a head, coupled with the flashbacks of police violence Rustin endured while being arrested for what was deemed “lewd vagrancy” in 1953.

For all the complexes of the man, Rustin lands on the pillars of hope and faith. Branford Marsalis's jazz-infused score gives this period piece some pop. It is great to see figures like A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), and John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) all add to the melting pot of ideas that would ultimately push life-changing legislative measures for Black Americans through the blockage of Congressional thinking. The format might feel familiar, but the sense to look back and take heed of the pioneers of the fights still raging today is as relevant as ever.