April 14, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

“Rustin” is a meaningful look into the struggle for Civil Rights

3 min read
“Rustin” is a meaningful look into the struggle for Civil Rights

Bayard Rustin isn’t a famous name, at least not as recognized as it should be. He was a prominent civil rights activist, leading American movements in socialist politics, nonviolence, and gay rights. In the 1960s, he worked alongside Martin Luther King and is considered to be the most important planner of the historic March on Washington in 1963.

Why is such a great man, such a dedicated civil rights proponent, so little remembered? The answer is that Rustin was a gay man. Many of his fellow activists, members of the NAACP including its chair Roy Wilkins, leaders of black churches, and Congressmen such as Adam Clayton Powell shunned Rustin because of his openly gay lifestyle.

The feature film, Rustin, a Netflix original, is drawing much attention to this man and his hard work, particularly his months of dedicated labor to put together and oversee the now famous March on Washington, the largest nonviolent demonstration in the history of the United States. The March drew a peaceful crowd of 250,000 people who were looking for equal-opportunity lifestyles in our country where race, gender, and sexual inclinations had bearing on restricting one’s freedoms.

Colman Domingo plays Rustin, and he brings incredible force and charisma to the role. There is an energetic cast, including Audra McDonald as well as Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, but it’s hard to watch anyone else when Colman Domingo is on screen. He’s dynamic! No wonder that he’s been nominated and has won major accolades for this performance.

Rustin is a talky film. The fast-paced editing gives great energy to the activity, but much of the dialog falls under the categories of tough talk, political aims and intentions. There’s a scene where Rustin visits the King home just as Coretta Scott King and the children are preparing dinner. Rustin starts singing, and the Mrs. King and the little ones join in. What a welcome change of pace from gruff people talking each other down. A few more interludes would have made Rustin a more easily watchable movie.

Still, Rustin isn’t meant to entertain as much as it means to educate. The early sixties was a time of race wars. We see footage of segregated schools being integrated. There are scared but determined black children being treated like dirt. We see lunch counter demonstrations where white racists have poured mustard and ketchup over the demonstrators.

Rustin, who lived from 1912 to 1987, was quite a guy. In addition to his work on the civil rights movement, he was a recording artist with a fine tenor voice. His efforts that brought about the March on Washington lead to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act just nine months after the demonstration. Fifty years later, he was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. His lifelong devotion to bringing freedom and equality to all Americans is admirable, and we should celebrate his life. I recommend taking time to view Rustin on Netflix.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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