Colman Domingo Pays Tribute to Bayard Rustin and the March on Washington


Poster for RUSTIN (2023)

In 2023, we think of the March on Washington as the ideal standard of a peaceful, history-changing protest. At its best, Rustin reminds us that was no guarantee in 1963. 

We think of that march as one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s crowning glories, but planning an event for hundreds of thousands of people requires more than writing the “I Have a Dream” speech (though that’s a pretty good start). This function is the vision of a lesser-known Civil Rights activist, Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), but convincing his fellow freedom fighters to pursue this idea, let alone allowing him manage it, is an uphill battle. In the early ‘60s, America has a president friendly, though not enthusiastic, toward their cause. The NAACP is committed but cautious—even in a post-Brown v. Board of Education world, they’re still walking on eggshells to win over politicians (like Jeffrey Wright’s Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.). Rustin is committed to non-violence, but he is aggressive in his opinions, making him challenging to work with, and as a man who is as openly gay as you can be in early ‘60s, some consider him a liability to their movement. 

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

Like many biopics, Rustin is telling two stories: the story of an individual and the story of the time he lived in. And like most movies that are trying to be two movies, it tells one of them better than the other. The best scenes of this historical drama remind us history could have been very different if Civil Rights leaders couldn’t resolve their in-fighting and politics. (Arguably, their debates about whose names appeared on the program could have been a bigger threat to the event than racist violence.) We see Rustin train black police offers to withstand hateful taunting and meet with local police to negotiate for resources, but there’s nothing you can do if NAACP director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) just doesn’t like you. When the film transforms moments most of us have only ever seen in grainy black-and-white into vibrant, colorful close-ups, it’s powerful not just because Aml Ameen is a solid doppelgänger for Dr. King but because we’ve watched the travailous journey Rustin and his colleagues have overcome.

Alas, Rustin is attempting to juggle more than that, which means the most powerful scenes are cut short. The rest of this movie is a quintessential biopic, handling any characters with real-life counterparts with gloves. I have no desire to discredit the work these activists did, but neither did Ava DuVernay when Selma acknowledged Dr. King’s flaws. Domingo’s Rustin is a live wire who defines Main Character Energy (and will likely be a contender on the Oscar trail this winter), but the script’s Rustin is a symbol, not a person. (He posthumously earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, a producer on this film.) He speaks about his sexuality in anachronistic 2023 terms, clashing with the 1963 tone of discussions about race. For a movie that spends so much time moralizing, it never challenges its hero’s recklessness with his friends and lovers, which means he has no arc and the this movie has nothing new to add to the biopic genre.