Rustin Review: A Forgotten Civil Rights Hero Gets His Due

When you hear the words “March on Washington 1963,” you are most likely to automatically think of Martin Luther King, Jr. But, what if the whole event was organized by someone else?

That is what Rustin sets out to educate us about, the man behind Martin Luther King, Jr. during the biggest peaceful, civil rights protest of all time. The way this film weaves historical figures alongside a man who changed the course of history keeps you fascinated from start to finish.

The screenplay is co-written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black — who is well known for the film Milk — and successfully shows the world how interwoven the fight for civil rights is with queer history in America.

Bayard Rustin, You’ll Remember the Name
Rustin. (L to R) Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

One of the most fascinating things about this film is that our history books have managed to entirely erase one of the most pivotal members of the civil rights movement most likely due to his queer identity. Rustin was a gay man during a time when you could still be arrested for such acts — and he was.

It shows that even the most progressive and educated people haven’t ever heard of this man until now. Rustin is depicted in this film as being vocal about organizing the protest, but not about getting the credit for it.

He knew that his face being plastered all over the movement wouldn’t be helpful due to the rumors swirling around about his communist connections and his gay activities. Instead, he insists that the actual heads of the organizations get the credit and recognition.

Rustin. (L to R) Frank Harts as Jim Farmer, Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young, Chris Rock as NAACP Exec. Dir. Roy Wilkins, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper as John Lewis, Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph in Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

That is the mark of a true hero and someone who is working toward a cause for the actual benefits of winning freedom. In fact, he is given the choice to stand alongside the “Big Ten” and tells them all he’d said he would gladly help with the protest even as a janitor and that is what he will do.

As if to prove his point Rustin picks up a tool and bag and gets to work cleaning up the trash left behind by their fellow protesters. While the entirety of Rustin paints this picture of a man willing to lay himself on the sword for freedoms he believes everyone deserves, this moment speaks the loudest of them all.

He could’ve been remembered throughout history alongside his best friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. But instead, he chose to keep his controversial existence to the background because he knew they’d achieve more that way.

A Journey Through History
Rustin. (L to R) Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson, Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr., Chris Rock as NAACP Exec. Dir. Roy Wilkins, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young in Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

Most everyone knows about the major events of the civil rights movement, but to feel like you are right there is a skill some films fail to achieve. The storytelling and cinematography of Rustin force you to be right there in the movement, the moment.

When it flashes back to Rustin’s bus boycott experiences of 1942 and the subsequent beating he sustained you feel every blow as if it’s happening to you. The way the sound slowly fades away until all you hear are the sounds of the police hitting him and kicking him sends chills down your back.

Then there is the moment where Rustin visits the King’s home for the first time in years to convince Martin to join him on his crusade to Washington. Rustin, Coretta, and the children are in the kitchen shucking corn and singing.

Rustin. Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, Melissa Rakiro as Yvette, Ayana Workman as Eleanor, Jordan-Amanda Hall as Charlene, Jakeem Dante Powell as Norm in Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

Somehow, you feel as though you are part of this family gathering. You are left feeling as though you too will be enjoying a wonderful homecooked meal and a comforting conversation soon enough.

It’s this familiar feeling that Rustin enforces that has you trusting the narrative and wishing this man would get the universal respect he deserves.

Instead, you are vehemently reminded that the rights of women, people of color, and those within the queer community have always been less than those of white men. While we have come a long way in many respects, this story reminds us just how much we still haven’t grown in the 60 years since.

The Casting Sells the Story
Rustin. CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman in Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

While of course the dialogue and the imagery tell the story, it really jumps off our screens because of the casting choices made. There isn’t a single weak link out of the whole cast — not even amongst the smallest of roles.

Sure, there are well-known actors taking on rock star roles, but it’s the ones we aren’t as familiar with that navigate this tale toward the finish line.

It also helps that somehow the casting director was able to find people who significantly look like the real-life counterparts of these historical figures. Aml Ameen in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. is most notable, but if you google some of the other names, it becomes apparent just how accurate the Rustin depictions are.

Rustin (2023) Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr. CR: David Lee/NETFLIX

The way each of these actors and actresses slip into their roles is astounding. Chris Rock is well-known for being a funny man, and yet, he truly becomes Roy Wilkins to the point you fail to see Rock at all.

Don’t get me started on the sheer magnetism and talent that Colman Domingo has. This man encompasses Rustin so eloquently you are left with your mouth hanging open as you see him run the gambit of emotions from panicked and anxious to confident and fired up.

Domingo has the ability to convince every viewer that they too should drop what they are doing and join the fight for freedom and civil rights — never mind that this isn’t 1963. There is just something about him that has us believing that he knew Bayard Rustin in another life.

 

What did you think of Rustin? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Rustin is now streaming on Netflix.

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Mads is a part-time entertainment journalist and full-time marketing content creator. They love reading the latest in Queer novels -- especially romance ones and watching the latest dramas, sci-fi/fantasy, Star Wars, and romcom films/TV shows. You can join the conversation by following them on Twitter: @dorothynyc89.

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