Out of the Celluloid Closet

‘Rustin’ doesn’t do justice to Bayard Rustin

· Updated on November 20, 2023

Bayard Rustin was an architect of the civil rights movement. He already had two decades of galvanizing and protesting under his belt before he imparted the methods of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in British-ruled India to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the Baptist minister planned the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. But because Rustin was gay, his story and his work remained relatively obscure.  

He is now getting his flowers in the form of a biopic executive produced by none other than Barack and Michelle Obama, the former having posthumously bestowed on him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Positioned as award bait, the Netflix release Rustin boasts three-time Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk), Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), and Emmy-winning actor Colman Domingo (Euphoria) in the title role – plus Grammy winners Branford Marsalis and Lenny Kravitz on the soundtrack. Yet somehow the film doesn’t even begin to do Rustin justice. It barely offers a tiny glimpse of an extraordinary life. 

The film’s timeline doesn’t even start until some time after the Montgomery boycott, when Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), wielding the hammer of gay panic, blackmails Dr. King (Aml Ameen) into temporarily distancing himself from Rustin and thus pulling the plug on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s march, an action timed to coincide with the 1960 Democratic National Convention. That didn’t deter Rustin. He teamed with A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) to coordinate, in just under two months, the logistics of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which his on-and-off pal MLK would deliver the landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. 

While the March on Washington was a monumental event indeed, Rustin’s legacy is broader than this one historical act. “Time on Two Crosses” culls material from a five-decade span of the civil rights leader’s writings . Even if you find the anthology’s 426 pages daunting, his Wikipedia page lists a myriad of his accomplishments and obstacles in digest form. He was a Quaker who dodged the draft, arranged Freedom Rides, helped protect the property of imprisoned Japanese Americans, worked to desegregate interstate bus travel, journeyed to India to learn from the Gandhian movement, recorded an LP, and performed in a Broadway musical. All of that together would have culminated in a colorful epic, which this ain’t.  

Come on. A civil rights leader who sang in the Broadway chorus? Who isn’t sold on that premise? 

Rustin faced arrest in 1953 for violating one of America’s many sodomy laws—in California of all states—after taking part in a ménage à trois in a parked car. However lurid that tidbit might seem, it was a fact of life for gay men back then. There is no mention of that here. Instead, the film barely brings up Rustin’s sexual orientation as a possible hindrance to his organizing ability.  

In fact, the movie is so utterly sexless that Rustin could easily have been played by just about any cishet actor. The most skin we see here is shown when Rustin and his assistant, Tom (Kahn, presumably, played by Gus Halper), rubbing bare shoulders in a darkened room. It’s to imply they had a fling, but we witness little of their shared moments of tenderness or emotional support. While Tom seems like a woke ally, he certainly isn’t very understanding when Rustin takes an interest in the (fictional) closeted Black preacher, Elias (Johnny Ramey). The film borders on cringe territory here, with Tom reacting the way contestants on “Love Island” do whenever new singles descend on the villa on the eve of another round of elimination. 

In a sense, “Rustin” engages in the same type of respectability politics as Powell and Wilkins did – which is not really surprising given the former first couple’s involvement. Yes, Powell and Wilkins stood in Rustin’s way, but the film never articulates how Rustin felt fighting alongside those who undermined him. While he might generally exude an air of positivity and charm as depicted herein, the film never affords him a private moment of vulnerability or self-doubt in the face of adversity. He’s the model minority, and thus he can’t possibly have flaws or feelings.  

Rustin fought all his life. The film does not show him even pushing back. 

The film never affords him a private moment of vulnerability or self-doubt in the face of adversity. He’s the model minority, and thus he can’t possibly have flaws or feelings.

Martin Tsai

Elsewhere in the film, there’s scant archival footage of Rustin himself, the most notable being a clip of him reading out a list of demands while addressing the March on Washington. Incidentally, that speech is not reenacted in the movie. Domingo somehow manages to extrapolate what little is available to craft a three-dimensional character.  

Yet despite Domingo’s efforts, the film itself is a bit one-note, registering as something made for TV. To be sure, Rustin was far more complex a person than depicted here. It’s a truly paint-by-numbers biopic with forgettable visuals and pacing. One can’t help but wonder if it might have been better off with a less conventional approach, with a script by, say, Jeremy O. Harris instead of the one here by Julian Breece and Black. 

Though he was out all along, Rustin did not actively advocate for gay rights until the 1980s, at the urging of his partner Walter Naegle. Because same-sex marriage wasn’t in the cards then, he adopted Naegle in a bid to secure legal protection for their union. Later in life, Rustin became a neocon and was regarded by some as a sell-out. He was anti-affirmative action and pro-Zionism—but none of this shows up in Rustin. What ultimately changed him? Being spurned by the Black political establishment? Becoming involved with the AFL-CIO?

Sadly, this film isn’t about to venture a guess. Beyond the March on Washington, Rustin isn’t all that interested in Rustin. ♦

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