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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Thursday February 22nd 2024

Movie Corner: Rustin

4.5 Stars

Higher Ground Productions 2023


Howard McQuitter II

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) is a name relatively unknown in the fabric of American history, especially in regard to the Black history. Far too long, great contributions to American society – and to the world – by people of color, women and gay people have been put on (or beyond) the margins. I remember the name Bayard Rustin as an adolescent African American boy growing up in the times of the civil rights movement, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the Vietnam War, Gilligan’s Island, great R&B artists, and eight- track tapes. There is so much to be said for the man, Rustin, a true hero, warrior and orator. And Mr. Colman Domingo plays the role of Rustin beautifully, not to mention his likeness to the man appears on screen as if he’s still alive. Back in 1940, Rustin tried to organize a March on Washington, collaborating with A. Philip Randolph, labor and civil rights activist, to protest segregation in the Armed Forces and government jobs.
I fast forward to the early 1960s, because that’s where the film starts (with a few flashbacks of white police officers beating Rustin on a bus for not giving up his seat to a white person, or arresting him in the midst of an illegal sex encounter with another man). Here he is discussing how to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, with the likes of giants in the civil rights movement Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen), A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Ella Baker (Audra McDonald), Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), James Farmer (Frank Harts), and a number of volunteers, both Black and white. Rustin tells everybody in the room he and others can draw 100,000 people or more to Washington for one or two days. They balk at his statement, thinking he’s crazy. Roy Wilkins, head of the national NAACP, and Adam Clayton Powell, Congressman from New York, are especially skeptical of this man’s assurance that the March can succeed in bringing people from every corner of America reaching 100,000 or more. Many at the table with Mr. Rustin are uncomfortable and appalled by his homosexuality. Adam Clayton Powell is determined to get Rustin out of the movement by lying, saying King and Rustin had sex at one point.
During a party, as people are dancing to the smooth and vibrant R&B tune “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & The All Stars, Rustin is confronted by a naysayer to whom he responds, “On the day I was born, I was born Black and I was also born homosexual.” Much of the angst among organizers comes from those who knew of his sexuality, fearing it would compromise the movement. F. B. I. Director John Edgar Hoover announces that Rustin is a pervert and maybe a Communist, therefore dangerous to society. Hoover’s real ambition is to destroy Martin Luther King and the entire civil rights movement. (Hoover will shortly attempt to undermine Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.) What Rustin’s opponents in the movement fail to realize is that focusing on his sexuality allows the movement to hemorrhage and white supremacy to go unchallenged.
Director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 2020) effectively forms the characters and gives his audience a realistic portrayal of the era. Washington D.C. was not eager to lay down the carpet for the oncoming marchers. An estimated 250,000 people marched that day. August 28, 1963 is etched in the fabric of American history thanks to the relentless efforts of Bayard Rustin.

Higher Ground Productions

Cast: Colman Domingo (Bayard Rustin), Chris Rock (Roy Wilkins), Gylnn Turman (A. Philip Randolph), Aml Ameen (Martin Luther King), Gus Halper (Tom), Johnny Ramey (Elias Taylor), CCH Pounder (Dr. Anna Hedgeman), Michael Potts (Cleveland Robinson), Audra McDonald (Ella Baker), Jeffery Wright (Rep. Adam Clayton Powell), Lilli Kay (Rachelle), Jordan-Amanda Hall (Charlene), Jakeem Powell (Norm Hill), Ayana Workman (Eleanor Holmes), Grantham Coleman (Blyden), Frank Harts (James Farmer).
Director: George C. Wolfe.
Screenwriters: Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, and others.
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler.
Original Music: Branford Marsalis.
Running time: 106 minutes.

Howard McQuitter II is a longtime movie critic. He has been reviewing movies for the alley since 2002.

Editor notes: Higher Ground Productions was founded in 2018 by former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. The film is streaming on Netflix.

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