Do you know the name Bayard Rustin? I admit that I did not before watching the new film “Rustin,” which is about one of the unsung leaders of the civil rights movement.
You might not know about him either as his name was silenced in large part because he was a gay man. It’s important to remember that the act of loving another of your own sex was against the law. As it relates to retelling the story about peaceful protest against injustice run by the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the name Rustin is rarely attached, but it should have been.
On the day the late King uttered those famous four words: “I have a dream” — Aug. 28, 1963—on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the African American man standing a bit out of focus, just over King’s right shoulder — was his right-hand man — the brains behind the idea. That was Bayard Rustin. History knows this event as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation” organized by an African American gay man of great courage and even greater vision.
Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Barack Obama. A recognition for his deep and lasting contributions to the civil rights movement. This man packed with courage and wit was nearly left out of history altogether because of his sexual orientation.
George C. Wolfe’s direction of “Rustin” is a beautiful testament to simplicity. The screenplay of “Rustin” is rich with impactful words, so much so that I lost count. However, one quote lingered and etched itself into my mind: “When we tell ourselves such lies, we do the work of our oppressors,” as articulated by Rustin. A truth resonant then and undeniably relevant now.
I’m predicting accolades for the screenplay written by Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”). Both skilled storytellers understand those inner workings surrounding the African American and LGBTQ+ causes.
The narrative takes place in 1960, depicting the evident camaraderie between Rustin and King, they are very close friends. Much like King, Rustin embraces nonviolence and peaceful protest. Rustin successfully persuades King to lead a march involving 5,000 people.
Unfortunately, King succumbs to fear induced by his own leaders, particularly Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who menacingly threatens to expose a false rumor about “King and his queen.” Despite the untruth, the damage is done. Rustin resigns, and King, acknowledging the need for resolution, allows him to do so, marking the beginning of a rift between them.
Saddened by the disassociation with King, it took a moment for Rustin to bounce back, but when he did, he came up with the most ambitious gathering ever mobilized on the nation’s capital.
Despite the fact that nine years previously, the Supreme Court had ruled segregation unconstitutional, the ugly truth of discrimination still very much in full force. White people in the American South hated African American people. Rustin believed, in his heart, that by unifying a march, they would show the sheer power of solidarity.
Trade unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) supported Rustin. Others of note did not. This film did not shy away from presenting the infighting and how Rustin had to fight his own race.
Rustin turns the other cheek so many times; it’s a miracle he didn’t sprain his neck. As played with the gentle nuance of a master, Domingo gives us a man dripping in wit and dignity. Tall, wearing his thick-framed glasses and quick with a song and a noticeable gap in his upper front left teeth. It’s an injury he wears as a badge of honor for a man who almost lost his life for standing up for his basic rights as a human being.
As for his sexual orientation, he didn’t shy away from it. He was careful since it was, at the time, illegal to be a homosexual, but he didn’t live in shame. He did not (like so many) hate himself for being what God made him.
There’s an interesting subplot where he has an affair with a fictional lover — Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married, African American minister whose involvement in the movement was close enough to hurt both of their futures.
The film ends without the big scale extras that would have been needed to truly bring in the impact. They didn’t do it. But we all know how it ends. We can simply go to YouTube to find out that 250,000 people attended the March on Washington, making it the largest peaceful protest to date.
“Rustin” is on Netflix November 17.