a 1940s Black man on a bus
Credit: David Lee/Netflix

Historical civil rights movies have to navigate a difficult path between unrelieved despair and unrelieved triumph. Dwelling on the intransigence and brutality of racism can make a film feel like it’s reveling in the display of torment, joining in rather than resisting the dehumanization of its characters. But Hollywood happy endings can make the struggle seem unnecessary and, perhaps worse, suggest that the battles were all won in the past, and we’re now living in a utopia.

George C. Wolfe’s Rustin leans firmly toward optimism. That’s understandable; this is the first film centering Bayard Rustin, a key civil rights organizer whose influence on the movement has been downplayed in part because of his homosexuality. 

The movie (executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama) is, then, intended as a love letter and a valediction. In that vein, scenes of violence are kept carefully offscreen or relegated to flashbacks. Rustin (played with unflagging extroversion by Colman Domingo) is presented as a beacon and a force of nature. Other civil rights leaders, like Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) or Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), express doubt about the wisdom and logistics of the massive March on Washington, but Bayard always manages to sway them with a combination of insouciant quips and unwavering moral commitment. The Hollywood pixie dust falls heavily and with great ubiquity; the conclusion (a triumphant MLK Jr. nodding solemnly toward Bayard to acknowledge his contribution) is never in doubt.

Rustin is a vital figure, especially at this moment when both LGBTQ+ rights and Black rights are under renewed fascist attack. The movie is admirably willing to portray Rustin’s relationships, and to connect Black and LGBTQ+ struggles. But the easy inevitability with which Rustin dispatches the forces of reaction, within or outside of the movement, diminishes the film and, I think, the man. Rustin’s victories were harder won, and his losses more bitter and more numerous, than Rustin is willing to acknowledge. Hope is vital, but for hope to feel real, we need to acknowledge a Rustin who was more acquainted with despair. PG-13, 106 min.


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