Rustin 2023 Movie Review
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Rustin 2023 Movie Review

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Rustin 2023 Movie Review

Greetings again from the darkness. Organizing an event is often tedious and frustrating and stressful. Rarely is it entertaining. Such is the challenge faced by director George C Wolfe (MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) and co-writers Justin Breece and Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for MILK, 2007). Take that and add a central character that most have never heard of, and the challenge seems questionable, if not undesirable. What happens if that main character has more charisma than the beloved Reverand Martin Luther King? Well, that’s something we can work with.

Colman Domingo (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK) stars as Bayard Rustin, the gay, black, outspoken civil rights activist and organizer … and one-time communist … who coordinated efforts for the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. If that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s the official name of the event where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. That day is remembered for King’s speech, but the event never would have occurred without the herculean efforts behind the scenes by Mr. Rustin and his team. Since it wasn’t easy, there is a story worth telling.

Director Wolfe is a Tony Award winner and his stage roots are on full display. Many scenes play like live theater, and the performances are elevated to the point of over-dramatizing. There is nothing subtle about Bayard Rustin and nothing subtle about the film, with the exception of Ami Ameen as MLK. By watching this, we wonder how King ever became the leader of a movement – and this after an early scene where Rustin urges him to “own your power”. It’s a power we don’t see here, yet understand it existed in real life. The film opens by reminding that it was 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled segregation was illegal.

Most of what we see occurs in 1963, a couple of years after King and Rustin had a falling out. When the friendship and partnership are re-established for the purposes of the march, it brings together the previously disparate organizations (and their egos) that had been striving independently for power. One in particular was the NAACP, with its director, Roy Wilkins, played here by Chris Rock. The behind-the-scenes bickering and posturing is one of the film’s strengths. Other players of interest here include A Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), Representative Adam Clayton Powell (a properly pompous Jeffrey Wright), and Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) as an attraction and distraction for Rustin.

The goal of 100,000 peaceful attendees initially seemed nearly impossible, and of course, history tells us the final number was closer to 250,000. This group of activists not only faced opposition from white establishment, including (according to this) the Kennedy brothers, but there was also an incredibly tight timeline to work with. It’s the group of dedicated and passionate volunteers that go to the heart of a grassroots movement, and these folks are given their due. The film’s weakness is in its attempt to balance the movement with the scandals surrounding Rustin’s homosexuality. That angle simply doesn’t work as well. As viewers, we are bombarded with monologues galore and stagey acting and scenes, but at the center is a man whose story should be told.

In select theaters November 3, 2023 and on Netflix beginning November 17, 2023.

Rustin 2023 Movie Review

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