In the annals of history, there are often unsung heroes who play pivotal roles in defining moments, yet their names remain shrouded in obscurity. “Rustin,” directed by George C. Wolfe, is a cinematic masterpiece that sheds light on one such unsung hero, Bayard Rustin, whose charismatic portrayal by Colman Domingo not only defines his own career but resurrects Rustin’s legacy as well.
The film’s premise revolves around a transformative moment in American history—the March on Washington in 1963. While Martin Luther King Jr. is a household name and an icon of the civil rights movement, few are aware of the man standing beside him, Bayard Rustin, who orchestrated the historic event that allowed King to utter his immortal words: “I have a dream.” August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin stood as King’s right-hand man, the visionary behind “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Bayard Rustin, though recognized for his contributions, has remained a lesser-known figure, partially due to his homosexuality, which threatened to erase him from the pages of history. “Rustin” directed by George C. Wolfe passionately and convincingly reiterates that the pursuit of equality transcends the advancement of any single group. Rustin’s own words resonate throughout the film: “When we tell ourselves such lies, we do the work of our oppressors.”
The screenplay, crafted by Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), unearths a multifaceted hero, presenting Rustin as a human being with private struggles and flaws that shape his identity and accomplishments. It opens in 1960, depicting Rustin and Martin Luther King (played by Aml Ameen) as close friends. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi‘s teachings, Rustin champions peaceful protest and persuades King to lead a march of 5,000 people. The movie acknowledges its limitations in recreating such a massive march but effectively conveys the challenges and opposition faced by Rustin, even within the civil rights movement.
The film underscores the reality that supposed allies can sometimes be the toughest adversaries. Internal divisions and opposition threaten to derail the movement, a truth recognized by anyone who has ever participated in advocacy work. “Rustin” astutely portrays the internal struggles that can hinder progress, emphasizing that unity is paramount in the fight for equality.
Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Bayard Rustin is nothing short of captivating. He brings to life a tall, slender figure with thick-framed glasses and a penchant for singing—a reflection of his Quaker upbringing. Yet, his most defining feature is the gap in his upper front left teeth, an injury that serves as a badge of honor symbolizing his refusal to hide his true self or the challenges he has endured.
The film handles Rustin’s sexuality with nuance, acknowledging his relationship with a younger white assistant, Tom (Gus Halper), without simplifying it. The script refrains from portraying Rustin as interested in monogamy at that point in his life, introducing a significant subplot involving a fictional lover named Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married Black preacher whose association with Rustin threatens both of their careers.
While addressing this dimension of Rustin’s life may challenge conservative perspectives, it aligns with the film’s commitment to authenticity and its refusal to slip into hagiography. The movie delves into the aftermath of Rustin being publicly outed as a Communist and a “pervert” by Sen. Strom Thurmond, delivering a poignant and emotionally charged climax that leaves a lasting impact.
“Rustin” underscores that the struggle for civil rights did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bayard Rustin’s legacy endures as a reminder of the ongoing pursuit of equality and justice. The film may falter in its visual representation of the March on Washington’s magnitude, but it succeeds brilliantly in resurrecting the spirit of an unsung hero.
In the end, as history remembers the iconic words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. on that historic day, “Rustin” expands the narrative to include the man who orchestrated it all. Colman Domingo’s electrifying performance and George C. Wolfe’s visionary direction ensure that Bayard Rustin’s legacy will no longer be relegated to obscurity.