Sunday, February 11, 2024

And So We March

Film: Rustin
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on Fire!

I tend to try to be more proactive with Oscar nominations once they are announced, but I’ve been slacking off for the past few weeks. It’s time for me to try to get at least a couple done per week since the ceremony is now exactly four weeks away. A lot of the movies aren’t available yet, which means I have to be a lot more selective how what I’m seeing. I figured Rustin, a biopic about Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin, would make a good place to start. No need to dive head-first into Best Picture just yet.

On the surface this is a biopic, but it’s much more of a memoir. The way Capote was a film about the writing of In Cold Blood, Rustin is about the creation and execution of the March on Washington, where a quarter of a million people converged on the capital and, among other things, listened to the I Have a Dream speech, arguably the most important and effective oratory of the last 100 years, at least in the U.S.

While I do want to talk about the film, I want to start by talking about Colman Domingo, who plays Bayard Rustin. This is a truly transformative performance, one that is filled with intensity and power. Domingo appears to have not merely taken on the role, but adopted the persona of Bayard Rustin as completely as possible. It is a case where it might be impossible to see another person in the role.

We’re going to learn a number of important facts about Rustin right away. He is a very powerful speaker, committed to non-violence (and in fact takes some credit for teaching those principles to Martin Luther King Jr.), and gay. His homosexuality is something that will come up frequently, being used to force him out of positions, mainly due to the threat of exposure of those associated with him. In fact, at one point, he is forced out of a position because of a threat to connect him with King as lovers, something that wasn’t true but that would have clearly swayed support against civil rights regardless of veracity.

The substance of the plot, at least the substance of the main narrative, concerns the March on Washington in 1963. Because of his past and his sexuality, as well as his aggressiveness in terms of what he wanted to accomplish, Rustin is pushed out of the way, but is immediately named as second in charge of the event and given all of the power to run it, essentially using him for his strengths while hiding his presence as the head of the effort. Needing to arrange things quickly, Rustin managed to bring a quarter of a million people to the capital and kept things peaceful, something that is still astonishing and perhaps unrepeatable today.

Through all of this, we will spend some time looking at Rustin’s life and his relationships. One of the more enduring ones, at least at this point in his life, was with Tom Kahn (Gus Halper), who was not only gay, but white, making their relationship forbidden on multiple levels. But while this was an important one, it was not an exclusive one. The film also explores his relationship Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married pastor. The film does this without any judgment. It’s merely a part of who Rustin was. In fact, he even goes into this at one point, essentially saying that he cannot allow himself to fall in love.

Rustin has a cast list that is truly impressive. Among those in important but often small roles include Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, fellow Best Actor nominee Jeffrey Wright, and CCH Pounder, a personal favorite of mine. It’s a hell of a line up.

What strikes me as interesting about this film is that the entire film feels like waiting for the penny to drop. I’ve seen enough films about Civil Rights topics and the movement to always expect that at some point Bull Connor or his equivalent is going to show up and heads are going to get knocked. This does happen a little in the sense of attacks on Rustin as well as mention of the death of Medgar Evars. There is pushback from the Washington police. But Rustin in many ways is not about the struggle, but about the success. Far more than most movies about the Civil Rights movement, Rustin is genuinely hopeful.

I went into this without a lot of knowledge of who Bayard Rustin was. I came out of this feeling like my education was insufficient, something honestly true of most Americans when it comes to the Civil Rights movement.

As far as the Oscars go, I don’t know that Colman Domingo has a snowball’s chance for the statue, but I absolutely can’t fault Oscar’s choice in the nomination.

Why to watch Rustin: A truly deserved biopic.
Why not to watch: It feels like we still have so far to go.


  1. I might watch it for Domingo though I heard it's kind of mid as a film.

    1. He's the reason to watch it. There's a reason I didn't mention it being snubbed for any of the other awards.