Five Cent Cine: Rustin

Rustin ★★★ (out of 4 stars)

He had a dream, too

The 1963 March on Washington was an iconic moment in the Civil Rights Movement, as indelibly etched in the nation’s consciousness as Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Few remember the causes promoted by the 200,000 plus gathered on the mall beneath the Lincoln Memorial (“Jobs & Freedom”), but it’s a rare American who doesn’t know something of Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving speech or recall the emotion brought to the assemblage by the voice of Mahalia Jackson. Incredibly, it was Jackson, interrupting King as he read his prepared remarks, who prodded the minister: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And he did, in the most dramatic and memorable moment of the March on Washington.

Director George C. Wolfe’s goal in “Rustin” is to tell a different story, one that culminates on the mall on that 28th day of August, yet focuses not on King and Jackson but on the man who organized the march, who made it possible: Bayard Rustin. The contrast between the two men couldn’t have been greater, according to Wolfe, who has directed several films that bring to the fore Black experience and culture, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2017). King (Ami Ameen) lacks the strength one would expect, and Wolfe underscores his weakness by having Rustin (a lanky 6’1”) tower over King (5’ 7”). As Rustin described him, King “couldn’t organize vampires to a bloodbath.” He was also, in Wolfe’s telling, cautious to a fault, intimidated by more senior Black leaders and white politicians. 

Rustin (Colman Domingo) was a ball of charismatic energy, left, as he enlisted people to his cause – the March on Washington.

Convincingly portrayed by Colman Domingo (in his first, large protagonist turn), Rustin is the great “do-er,” the man who will make the March on Washington a reality, the man who will make history and at the same time was not the face of history—that would be King. Of course, we know Rustin will succeed; the march happened and was a great success, so how to create drama? Christopher Nolan faced a similar problem with “Oppenheimer,” another story of an organizer whose project we know to have been successful (the Los Alamos test of the atomic bomb didn’t destroy humanity). Wolfe does so, in part, through two over-the-top montage-like sequences. In one, Rustin doles out tasks and directs the office workers as they move through the space, responding to his energy, his will, his belief in what can be accomplished. In another, presented in response to Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell’s doubts, Rustin becomes the larger-than-life performer, not unlike Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” with Hill’s 76 trombones and 110 cornets becoming Rustin’s 500 toilets and 1000 buses. It wouldn’t take much for Rustin to break out in song. Broadway awaits.

It’s a one-man show, and Domingo, justifiably nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, is up to the challenge. He’s tall and physical, perpetually in motion, persuasive and outrageous, likeable but irritating, a big gap in his white teeth (from an early police beating) yet always appealing. In his New York Times piece on the year’s best acting performances, critic Wesley Morris awards Domingo “Best Too Much.” “When he is out to lunch,” Morris explains, “he leans so far over the other actor’s plate that he seems liable to eat his grifts. And to be fair, in this movie, Domingo does eat everybody’s grits.”

The March on Washington would not have happened without the charismatic organizer, Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), center, who led a team of mostly young folks and a few older stalwarts from earlier protests.

Another way Wolfe seeks to create tension in a film where history has shown us the ending is his use of Rustin’s overt gay sexuality to threaten his leadership—and the march itself. Rustin risks being kicked out of participating in preparations for the march he conceptualized. King has been too cautious to stand up for him. Wolfe attempts to present the openly gay Rustin as the movement pariah he was, but that threat doesn’t fully materialize, in part because homosexuality is not the anathema today it was in the 1960s, and because those who see Rustin as a menace to the movement—Powell and Roy Wilkins—are made to seem not only unreasonable, but vituperative. 

Powell, the consummate politician, comes across as a dandy elitist, a figure of comic relief (Jeffrey Wright is unrecognizably and delightfully irascible, light-years away from the studious professor of “American Fiction”). Wilkins, for 22 years the distinguished executive director of the NAACP and an advocate of dialogue and consensus, is badly conceived by Chris Rock as a petulant naysayer, his role seemingly designed only to make Rustin look progressive. Rustin, in contrast, is charismatic, courageous, and proud to be true to himself:  “On the day that I was born black, I was also born a homosexual. They [Wilkins, Powell and their ilk] either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

Similarly, Rustin’s white lover, Tom (Gus Halper), is not much more than a cypher, typing press releases in a remote cubicle and playing the negative non-dreamer (“you can’t do that”) to Rustin’s imaginative sensibilities, which includes his own version of “I have a dream.”

Director George C. Wolfe goes to great lengths to make Martin Luther King (Ami Ameen), left, look small and Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) look large, in stature, charisma, and moral values.

The merging of King’s and Rustin’s paths to the Lincoln Memorial steps produces the film’s most awkward moment, with King, having delivered his storied address, turning his head toward Rustin, standing behind and applauding like everyone else and, at some length (at least 5 seconds—a filmic lifetime), tacitly acknowledging Rustin’s prominence, deflecting the crowd’s exuberance, and the film’s climactic scene of applause, to Rustin. It doesn’t work. King’s speech is presented only in brief excerpts, and is without emotional valence. The words “I have a dream” aren’t spoken, as if to hear them would detract from Rustin’s role—and his dream. And that’s not the half of it. For all her talent as an actress, Da’ Vine Joy Randolph is no Mahalia Jackson. Instead, the film concludes with Rustin demonstrating his “ordinary guy” bonafides by picking up trash.

There is a larger device at play here. To be sure, Rustin deserves to be celebrated—and returned to his rightful place in history—for conceptualizing the march and, with older union leader A. Philip Randolph, for bringing it off in less than two months. His abilities as an organizer and motivator were critical to its success, as the production makes clear. Picking up trash is a nice touch. 

There is no doubt Domingo’s is a great performance. What a shame it’s accomplished at the expense of every other actor (with the exception of Glynn Turman as Randolph) and in the service of a project that diminishes one of the great moments of American history.

Date: 2023

Stars: 3 (out of 4)

Director: George C. Wolfe

Starring: Colman Domingo, Ami Ameen, Glynn Turman, Chris Rock, Gus Halper, Da’ Vine Joy Randolph, Jeffrey Wright

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 106 minutes

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor – Colman Domingo

Other Awards: 11 wins and 66 nominations

Availability: Still playing nationally in some second-run theaters; widely available for rent or purchase, streaming, on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and elsewhere. See JustWatch here for full availability.

Lead image: Leading figures in the Civil Rights Movement led the March on Washington. Bayard Rustin, the principal organizer, was not allowed to take center stage. Here, center, Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), to his right Martin Luther King (Ami Ameen) and next to him A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman). Rustin is nowhere to be seen.

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