It just goes to show how one movement will always be followed by another. No matter how integral Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) proved to advancing Civil Rights agendas that helped put an end to segregation, he was seen as more liability than necessity to those in power because of his sexuality. And when you’re dealing with men like Representative Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright), he could also be labeled a threat. Because there’s allyship and there’s self-promotion. There’s making incremental change while profiting for the trouble and there’s giving everything you have. Rustin was the latter and his success inevitably risked the former’s money.
Showing us this dynamic at the start of George C. Wolfe’s Rustin is thus crucial to understanding the politics of the story beyond the politics of the world in which it resides. Julian Breece (also credited with the story) and Dustin Lance Black’s script needs to show us that men like Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) were constantly fighting on multiple fronts. The job sometimes moves away from pushing the movement forward to assuaging egos. And since you cannot satisfy everyone all the time, the compromises that must be made become personal. They become questions of either/or. You might win without my support, but wouldn’t it be easier to just meet my demands and buy it?
That’s the backdrop to everything that occurs: Powell and NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) being in each other’s pockets to the tune of needing to kneecap King in order to keep their mutually beneficial relationship intact. And, as Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) explains, they knew that King and Rustin were “fine” as individual activists but “fire” as a team. So the outspoken organizer on King’s shoulder was thrown to the wolves. He was dropped to save face, pat backs, and presumably maintain power for those who continuously prove they aren’t that much different than their collective oppressors. It hurts Rustin and inspires him to ignite the insane idea of marching on DC with 100,000 protestors.
A truce is necessary to make it work, though. Well––many truces. Because there are a lot of moving parts with a lot of different civil rights groups alongside a mix of would-be allies and opportunist pretenders. If anyone can put it all together, it’s Rustin… but with the backing of King. Mend that fence and Wilkins has no choice but to fall in line. Then it’s simply about the monumental task of pulling it off, avoiding J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI sniffing at Rustin’s heels for being a former communist and current homosexual, and leveraging that coerced NAACP assistance into expanding the pool of likeminded groups further. Uniting everyone under the same cause regardless of tactics or philosophies is the only way Washington ever really pays attention.
Wolfe’s film is very much about that process. It’s fast-paced and densely informative despite that breezy nature, with an electric propulsion that moves through time to only supply the highlights. Breece and Black’s script is a well-oiled machine in that way and could, accordingly, be construed as formulaically safe. To do so, however, would neglect the reality that it must be smooth and precise to allow for the biopic aspects that make it not solely about one event. It’s about Bayard Rustin. It’s a showcase to educate the country about someone who might be as important a figure to the Civil Rights movement as anyone, but who many don’t know because he was refused a permanent seat at the table.
As the transfixing Domingo passionately declares, “You either believe in justice and freedom for all or you don’t.” You cannot simply use his Rustin to get you where you want to go for yourself and then pretend he wasn’t there because men like Powell and Strom Thurmond know what giving him a platform means for the future. This story is as much about segregation and race as it is about the fact that discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community shouldn’t be seen as a separate topic. All prejudice walks the same path. To allow one form as a compromise for stopping another only leaves the door open for the latter to eventually be reinstated.
Meeting Tom (Gus Halper) and Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) is necessary for both threads. It gives us insight into Rustin’s humanity and the cutthroat nature of politicians and people in power weaponizing public perception to get their way. Perhaps to a lesser and more subtle extent, it also allows some commentary about religion. See Taylor’s desire to be a preacher and Rustin (as openly gay as one can be without being openly gay) asking how he can honestly peddle the word of God when his interpretation of that word means he cannot be honest to himself. More than a judgment on religion (Rustin uses church to exorcise his rage) it targets those who use it to keep others under thumb.
So there’s a lot going on. A lot more than you might expect or even consider while watching without the hindsight of seeing how the pieces fit to speak on topics far beyond the superficial scope of the plot itself. Rustin still has its Oscar-bait moments and doesn’t necessarily take any big swings that might risk mainstream appeal, but it’s a solid drama and above-average profile, nonetheless. And if you get nothing else out of it but a cursory education on Bayard Rustin the man as well as an acting clinic from Domingo and Glynn Turman, even that should be enough. Especially now with some states completely removing Black history from their curriculum. Truth may have to come from art.
Rustin played at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and arrives in theaters on Nov. 3 and Netflix on Nov. 17.