From the most momentous events in history, some of those who were very crucially involved aren’t necessarily remembered. Part of that has to do with the fact that plans don’t always materialize, and something may play better with a crowd than it did on the page in the planning stages and as a result become more significant than intended. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is best known for Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, but as Netflix’s new film Rustin reveals, there was another man who deserves just as much credit for making it happen.
Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) is introduced as a passionate advocate for change, a close friend of King (Aml Ameen) who knows the power of coming together to effect change. But Rustin’s status as an out gay man in the 1960s prevents him from being the public face of his cause, and his friendship with King suffers following a publicized rumor of a sexual relationship between them. Determined to work for something better, Rustin decides to make amends and forge ahead on what he knows will be an unprecedented, transformational opportunity to show America that it’s time to properly recognize its Black population.
As early as the first time he speaks on screen, it becomes clear that Domingo is throwing himself entirely into the role of Rustin. He speaks quickly and with a fervor that indicates a true belief in everything he’s saying, and he almost never takes no for an answer, unless someone does something so devastating to him that he makes him freeze and become unable to act. While he lives his life in a public way, he is aware of how who he is remains criminalized and is haunted by dark memories of his past. He also proudly advertises his missing teeth that were knocked out during an attempt at bus desegregation years earlier where he insisted on staying where he was to make a statement to future generations.
Rustin represents a reunion of Domingo and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom director George C. Wolfe. Also back working with these two men is Glynn Turman, who portrays organizer A. Philip Randolph. Wolfe has a keen eye for character, and it’s marvelous to see how he takes the actors who played band members in his previous feature and places them in entirely different parts here. The ensemble also includes a number of other standouts, such as Chris Rock and Jeffrey Wright as Black leaders who don’t see eye-to-eye with Rustin, CCH Pounder as a hard-working ally, and Gus Halper as a follower of Rustin’s who wants more from him than he’s able to give.
Rustin is a powerful character, one that many who purport to be knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Era in the United States may not be familiar with but should absolutely know. He has a spectacular energy that’s infectious, and Domingo fantastically conveys the way he riles people up and gets them excited about a cause. While some audiences will find the film’s grassroots activism trajectory predictable, it’s genuinely inspirational, full of wondrous successes and unlikely victories that reward its characters’ sincere efforts.
Rustin begins with its protagonist already fully committed to achieving equality for Black people in America, skipping over much of his origin story. Some details are filled in over the course of the film as Rustin shares formative memories, like the grandmother that raised him accepting him once she realized he was gay, and it’s an effective way to paint a full enough picture while only focusing on the years and days leading up to that pivotal march. This strong film pays tribute to a deeply principled and accomplished person who deserves to be celebrated alongside other greats in history, even though he knew history might not look as favorably on him as it should.
Rustin is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.