Wednesday, November 8, 2023

An unsung civil rights hero

    Born in 1912, Bayard Rustin dabbled with Communism as a young man and spent two years in jail as a conscientious objector during World War II. He later fought to integrate American labor unions, and  played a key role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 
   Though deprived of credit, Rustin was the visionary and organizing force behind the now famous 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his fabled "I Have A Dream" speech.  
   Because Rustin was openly gay before such declarations became commonplace, he upset some members of the civil rights establishment. NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins, for example, thought Rustin's sexual orientation disqualified him from playing a leading role in the March. 
  That's a lot of territory and Rustin, a semi-successful bio-pic built around a strong performance by Colman Domingocovers some of it, even as the richness and sweep of Rustin's life plays second fiddle to the March on Washington.
  Martin Luther King, the figure most associated with the march, and Rustin were friends. They had a falling out and eventually reconciled. As King, Aml Ameen wisely avoids mimicry, capturing King's idealism, as well as his more pragmatic concerns.
   The rest of the cast includes Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, renowned head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major figure in the civil rights movement. Jeffrey Wright plays an Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a spot-light hungry Harlem Congressman, and a miscast Chris Rock appears as NAACP chief Roy Wilkins.
  Informative as it can be, Rustin isn't a dramatic knockout; the story can be weighed down by the movie's need for exposition, montage, and a detailed depiction of how Rustin rallied volunteers to create an event that would attract more than 250,000 people to the National Mall.
     Working from a screenplay by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, director George C. Wolfe suggests an element that conforms to the current political climate, the "intersectionality" that found Rustin battling bigotry on two fronts -- racial and sexual. Rustin was more of a universalist than that statement might suggest, an old-fashioned Leftie with deep labor roots and a commitment to class struggle  -- albeit in a non-violent fashion inspired by Gandhi. 
      Gayness seldom becomes a focal point in a story that's embedded in the roiling issues of the moment.  A romance between Rustin and a married preacher (Johnny Ramey) points to a period when some gay men had no wish to open the closet door. 
     It’s long past time that Rustin, who died in 1987, began securing his place in the popular imagination. Perhaps Rustin -- now in theaters -- will help with that, particularly when the movie bows on Netflix on Nov. 17.
    Fair to say that Domingo and Rustin deserved a richer movie than Rustin, which is too much of a historical refresher for those who lived through the period and too much of a primer for those who didn't.
     Still, Domingo carries the film past its rough spots, capturing Rustin's fiercely unapologetic activism, deep-rooted conviction, and intellectual heft. Take the word "unapologetic" seriously: It may not have been easy, but Rustin insisted on defining himself: Courageously, he refused to outsource the job.

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