The Civil Rights Movement’s unsung hero gets his due

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Netflix, Nov. 17
3 out of 5

Unlike other personalities with Netflix deals (there’s only so much juice in the poor rich kid act, former royals), Barack and Michelle Obama have made the most of the arrangement. Their documentaries, particularly American Factory and Crip Camp, have been award magnets, same as their kids cooking show Waffles + Mochi.  Now they’re breaking into scripted drama with the story of another community organizer who rose to prominence in American politics: Rustin.

A fascinating historical figure (early adopter of nonviolent resistance, and the ‘leading from behind’ strategy), Bayard Rustin was the go-to guy whenever the Civil Rights Movement needed to put together a crowd. But by 1963 the activist had fallen out of favour with the two pillars of the movement: the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr, not in small part because of his little concealed homosexuality.

Growing racial unrest and the federal government’s inability to enforce equal opportunity laws spring Rustin into action. The community organizer comes up with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But to succeed he must repair his relationship with King; sidestep all the rumours about his private life; forge an alliance between civil rights, labour, and religious organizations; deal with the police, an ex-lover, and a new love — all in eight weeks.

The march, which served as the stage for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, would go on to become a crowning moment of the Civil Rights Movement.

As Rustin, Colman Domingo delivers the performance of his career. Known for flashy supporting roles in Euphoria and Fear the Walking Dead, Domingo captures the effervescence of Rustin without leaning on mannerisms or mimicry.

While Domingo’s work is stellar, the rest of the film is only adequate. Too many meetings, too little urgency, never mind the ticking clock hanging over the characters’ heads. Chris Rock is particularly insubstantial as the head of the NAACP (unless playing himself, he’s just not good at this). By comparison, Jeffrey Wright (as Harlem pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr.) only appears in two scenes, but his presence lingers.

Watching Rustin, I couldn’t help remembering how during the 2008 Presidential campaign John McCain and Sarah Palin took repeated shots at Obama for being “just” a community organizer. And we all know how that election turned out. ■