Bayard Rustin’s towering influence on civil rights is often overlooked in the annals of mainstream pop history. The movement is often personified in the collective consciousness by the image of Martin Luther King Jr passionately orating his timeless, endlessly quotable “I Have a Dream” speech, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps one of the successes of Rustin is its ability to put into context the multiple voices, which helped to shape that moment, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, portrayed by Chris Rock, seemingly enjoying one of his more measured outings.
Few were as galvanising, however, and none were as surreptitiously silenced, as Rustin, whose open homosexuality made him a target for smear campaigns, not least from within the movement itself. The opening sequence charts the initial breakdown of Rustin’s relationship with King, as he yields to Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr’s (Jeffrey Wright) threat to circulate false stories to the press about their relationship. Rustin, having reluctantly resigned from the SCLC, bitterly went his own way. Charges of communist sympathies also accompanied Rustin throughout his activism, making some corners of the movement jittery about his involvement in it. His reintegration into the movement, however, and organisation of the march on Washington in 1963, is the primary focus of George C Wolfe’s biopic.
While even this childishly broad overview of the man suggests ample fodder for a dynamic character study, the screenplay falls short of unpicking, with anything more subtle than broad strokes, the inner workings of Rustin’s experience or, in fact, his politics. Almost everything, therefore, falls on Colman Domingo’s central performance to help carve a by-the-numbers historical account into something of dramatic weight. Rustin’s face almost paints an arc in itself, projecting a cocktail of confidence, talent and vulnerability, which makes him an immediately magnetic, anchoring presence.
Rustin is released on Netflix on 17th November 2023.
Watch the trailer for Rustin here: