In the 60th anniversary year of the March on Washington, the film Rustin emerges as a captivating narrative detailing the untold story of Baynard Rustin, the visionary civil rights activist behind the 1963 march. Produced by Netflix, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring the versatile Colman Domingo (celebrated for his remarkable performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Rustin offers a compelling and thought-provoking journey into the depths of history.
On Friday (Nov. 10), Netflix celebrated its impending release with a special screening of Rustin at the opening night of the HBCU First Look Film Festival. Fittingly hosted at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., the event drew a crowd of HBCU students who filed in to get an early look at the film and to hear from Wolfe and Domingo.
Additional speakers included Lonnie G. Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian, as well as former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, whose production company Higher Ground co-produced the film alongside Netflix. Other attendees at the event included co-screenwriter Julian Breece, producers Tonia Davis and Bruce Cohen, activist Joyce Ladner (featured in the film), Walter Naegle (partner of Bayard Rustin), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and MSNBC anchor Jonathan Capehart moderated a Q&A with Wolfe and Domingo.
The screening kicked off with remarks from Denise Robinson, associate director of external affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, before Rustin’s opening scenes drew us in. The film sets the stage by revisiting pivotal moments in Black history, from courageous sit-ins to the historic desegregation of schools, featuring a poignant reenactment of Ruby Bridges. These early moments foreshadow the next hour and 48 minutes, immersing viewers in the intense and challenging era of the civil rights movement.
As the film progresses, it’s hard to overlook the authenticity of the scenes where civil rights leaders and activists gather to discuss their strategies and tactics. Aml Ameen’s depiction of Martin Luther King Jr, Glynn Turman’s portrayal of A. Philip Randolph, Chris Rock’s embodiment of Roy Wilkins, and Maxwell Whittington-Cooper’s rendition of a young John Lewis transported us into those moments as if we were in the room alongside them as history was shaped.
Wolfe’s impeccable direction shines throughout the film. He balances the art of holding onto a scene, allowing it to breathe and resonate, and skillfully knowing when to zoom in for intimate character moments. The attention to detail in capturing the look and feel of the 1960s, from costumes and buildings to cars and bars, is spot on.
The film’s storyline adds to its dynamism because the fight for racial equality is only part of the narrative. Rustin highlights the civil rights hero’s complex relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. in addition to the opposition he faced from fellow activists due to his sexuality. The Netflix period piece paints a more complete picture of its subject by exploring Rustin’s romantic relationships with with the men in his life and the challenges he faced finding love because of his deep devotion to activism.
Even after seeing the film that evening, it remains unimaginable that Rustin accomplished all that he did while remaining true to his identity. His accomplishments were extraordinary, particularly considering the resistance he faced within his own community. Yet, in the face of overlapping forms of bigotry, Rustin stood unwaveringly in his truth, inspiring countless others to do the same.
The film is a testament to the power of storytelling by shining a light on the heroes and heroines who have shaped our world. This gripping portrayal of Bayard Rustin’s life and legacy is a moving tribute to a man who overcame both external and internal monsters to fight for justice and equality. With its compelling storytelling, impeccable direction, and outstanding performances, Netflix’s Rustin — due for release on Nov. 17 — is a must-watch film that will leave a lasting impact on audiences worldwide.
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