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Film Reviews by Lisa Blanck
| Friday, 11.03.2023, 09:41 PM |   (314 views)

Rustin is a new biopic about an important American whose name may not ring a bell, though it was Bayard Rustin, and not Dr. King, who organized 1963's monumental, history-making March on Washington. 

In 1954, SCOTUS ruled segregation was unconstitutional, finally exploding the national powder-keg whose fuse had been lit for at least a decade previous.  Rustin opens with a series of quick, iconic stills from the 1960’s, photos depicting the racial brutality burned onto our social consciousness. The 1960 Greensboro, Alabama lunch counter sit-in. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering the William Franz elementary school in 1960 New Orleans, surrounded by security guards. The “scream image” of white students from the Little Rock Nine High School integration melee.  

Rustin is historical in its origins and yet, so contemporary in its themes.  "Counting on the courts to eradicate racial inequality, that's madness”.  This line is found in the film, but that truth is currently being debated today in far too many states who choose to prefer division over equality.  Not only is the concept of racial equality being re-challenged in 2023, but gender and sexual equality are as well.  

The film is a history lesson on the tangled web and struggle for power in the 60's between groups such as the NAACP, CORE, SNCC and SCLS, and the egos within each movement. Director George C. Wolfe quickly establishes the working relationships and conflicts among all the parties involved. 

Executive Produced by Barack and Michele Obama, Rustin begins at a frenetic pace, underscored by the sound of jazz music. Bayard Rustin (Coleman Domingo), close friends with Dr. King (Aml Ameen), has been under FBI surveillance since at least 1955 because of his participation in the Montgomery bus boycott.  Rustin is so much a part of Dr. King’s family that King's children are always asking their dad when “Uncle” Bayard is coming to visit.

Individuals who contributed to the cause are brought to life, such as A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), a labor leader, who helped end segregation in the armed forces.  He’s the founder of the first major Black labor union and one of his scenes shows a photo of Frederick Douglass displayed in his office.  Bayard Ruskin reports to Randolph.  

Randolph is not a fan of the style of NY's Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Jeffrey Wright).  Powell passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools.  Yet Powell, a close friend to Jack Kennedy, does not fully embrace King’s philosophy of nonviolence. 

Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) helmed the NAACP beginning in 1955.  Wilkins collaborated with Dr. King on many civil rights campaigns and pushed for communication and alliances between factions, rather than pushing the flashier 'in-your-face' style favored by Rustin.  Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards), also of the NAACP, and a very young John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) both play their parts in this  historical drama. Though his on-screen time is short, it's apparent that even as a young man, John Lewis spoke with both power and compassion; early in his political career, he believed in causing 'Good Trouble' and admired Rustin.

As a gay man, Rustin is always cognizant of the extra level of prejudice he personally faces, as these rising members of the black community fight to control and achieve racial equality.  He hopes that his personal life will be ignored, knowing that any one of these powerful men might use his sexuality as a weapon against him, should he try to assume control of the direction of the movement.  As we see throughout the film, though he attempts to shrug off the betrayals, his worst fears always come to pass.

“The world will know the truth about MLK and his Queen, and I don't mean Loretta”, states Congressman Powell. Though their end goals may be identical, there is no love lost between the men.  After a personally disastrous 1963 roundtable attended by Dr. King, the NAACP representatives et al,  Rustin is ousted from the group.  He joins the War Resisters League for a short time, eventually leaving that institution as well, because they were not vocal enough for him.  He believed the fight for equality was growing stagnant, that those in power, including the White House, were not doing enough to push the boundaries and close the racial inequalities.  Soon after leaving the Resisters, leading a growing team of young idealists, the concept for the D.C. March began to take shape.

Rustin believed that a D.C. March would best be represented by a two-day event, with perhaps 100,000 attendees. With assistance from the Parks Service, people would sleep in tents surrounding the Lincoln Memorial.  We all know that idea fell by the wayside.  However, historical photos tell us that the final tally was more than twice what Rustin envisioned.  250,000 people from every corner of America arrived by plane, bus, train and car, surrounding the Reflecting Pool and bearing witness to Dr. King's epic speech.  

Benefits at The Apollo theater, as well as in Los Angeles, raised a great deal of the seed money for buses to transport participants; boots on the ground in white liberal suburbs were also integral to the mission's success.  Based on the number of power plays going on between interested parties up to the day of the event, it's amazing that the March actually came to fruition.

In case you’re wondering, yes, there are women who play a role in the movement, as well as the film.  But as Dr. Anna Hegeman (CCH Pounder) puts it, their contributions, more often than not, are ignored by the men at the head of each organization.

With music by Lenny Kravitz, Rustin is a compelling look back on a turbulent time, with a gutsy performance by Colman Domingo.  Knowing he might very well be forced to sacrifice his personal life on the altar of the greater good, Rustin still forges ahead in his quest for racial equality.   

In 2013, Rustin received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. 

Lisa Blanck is the Associate Editor and Movie Reviewer for In  Her background includes 30+ years of digital editing for WESH2 News and WKMG News.  She also edits on-air promotional spots for Matter Of Fact, the number one nationally syndicated news and information program.  For more than 30 years she has covered the Florida Film Festival and the World Peace Film Festival, with additional experience in advertising, marketing, promotions and live special events at MTV Networks.  She was previously a columnist for the Focus In Newspaper and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. 

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