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Updated: Nov 20, 2023

In my film reviews, I start with the benchmark of five stars and then deduct half or one point if the film falls short in any of the following categories: · Storyline · Screenplay · Acting · Direction · Character Arcs

The reviews are my opinions alone.

Artistic rendition of closeup on the face of activist Bayard Rustin with Washington Monument in BG
Artistic rendition of Bayard Rustin with Washington Monument in BG (Image: Chat GPT)

Plot Overview

“Rustin,” released this weekend on Netflix, tells the emotional story of the unknown or widely forgotten role activist Bayard Rustin played in organizing the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The movie relates Rustin's relationships with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Cleve Robinson, the great Ella Baker (with whom Rustin and King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).

The film also speaks to Rustin's romantic involvement with assistant Tom Kahn and a fictionalized pastor, Elias Taylor, who represents a composite character of some of Rustin's closeted lovers. Rustin's homosexuality was used as a cudgel against him by political opponents, including US Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and racist Strom Thurmond, who called Rustin a "sexual pervert."

But Rustin pressed on with his extraordinary organizing capabilities to bring the March to fruition. He wrangled 80,000 boxed lunches, 22 first aid stations, six chartered flights, 292 latrines, over 1,000 Black police officers, and snagged celebrities like Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, and James Baldwin.

Cast Highlights

As Rustin, Colman Domingo is brighter and more explosive than a supernova. He appropriately eclipses the other cast members, who nevertheless render stellar performances. Aml Ameen is MLK, Jr.; Chris Rock is a pleasant surprise as Roy Wilkins; Glynn Turman is A. Phillip Randolph; Gus Halper is Tom Khan; CCH Pounder is Anna Hedgeman; Audra McDonald is Ella Baker; Michael Potts is Cleve Robinson; Jeffrey Wright is Adam Clayton Powell; and Johnny Ramey is Elias Taylor.

Behind the Scenes

The Obamas' production company, Higher Ground, produced the film. While in office, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“It was a great calling, honestly,” Domingo said at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles event. “History put him [Rustin] in the darkness because he was so full in his experience in the world, and that was a challenge to many folks. So I knew this was an opportunity to pull him out of the shadows.”


Directed by the legendary George C. Wolfe, Colman Domingo's passionate performance as Rustin is without comparison. From laughter to tears, Domingo spills every emotion. Of all the supporting roles, it is arguably Johnny Ramey's as Rustin's closeted lover Elias Taylor that offers as much depth as the leading role, highlighting the uneasy relationship between homosexuality and African-American churches.

Although Rustin's character is played to the hilt, the 108-minute movie cannot possibly encompass the depth and breadth of his career. Some sequences showing the organization process were glossed over where the roadblocks must have been significant in reality. A limited two- or three-part series might have gone into further detail, but financing could have been a factor, as is always the case in filmmaking. Still, as a feature film, it does very well.

If Branford Marsalis's upbeat tempo soundtrack sounds a little off the mark for certain serious scenes, it could be that, as director Wolfe has explained, the intention was to "lighten" the tone of the grave issues at the heart of the film.


• Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2

• Storyline: Emotionally stirring and engaging, with room for more depth and breadth.

• Screenplay: Sublime.

• Acting: Outstanding performances throughout, with Colman Domingo easily deserving an Oscar.

• Direction: Flawless.

• Character Arcs: Deeply and intricately developed in Rustin's and Elisas's roles.

Bottom Line

It is a superb piece of filmmaking that brings to our consciousness a man who has been unjustifiably ignored or forgotten because of America's unresolved conflict over sexual orientation, in Rustin's case, and race, in Bass Reeves's case.

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