Review: Rustin, Directed by George C. Wolfe

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A young woman, eyes fixed ahead of her, sits resolutely at a lunch counter as ketchup is poured over her head. A white crowd jeers in the background. A little girl skips to school, escorted by federal marshalls. Reflected in a teenage girl’s sunglasses, a hostile white woman berates her as she walks calmly ahead. 

For much of the American public, the cinematic depictions of this opening montage are quite recognizable even without a context. The scene is meant to provide viewers with an entry point into a long-overdue biopic about a man whose name is not well known within the history of the  Civil Rights Movement. Instead, the well-executed but perfunctory commercial movie set-up offers no  deeper insights or any valuable springboard into  Civil Rights Era activism  But this being a major mainstream production by Netflix that was backed by the Obamas, we do get, instead, superficial characters who feel more like archetypes than actual people. This includes the  protagonist of the drama, Mr. Bayard Rustin.

We meet Bayard Rustin in 1960, a couple decades into his activism. The biopic spans only about three years, with a few flashbacks and dialogue revealing aspects of Rustin’s past. The focus is on a snapshot of his political life during the lead-up to organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. It is an obvious choice, not only due to the scale and legacy of the man’s life, but also the way in which the demands of producing this massive action have become somewhat obscured in many popular recollections of the period. For example, the name itself is often shortened to the March on Washington, where the concrete demand for jobs can become subsumed under more vague ideas of equality. And the event is largely remembered for a single snippet of “I Have a Dream.” This in itself makes it easy to sideline the radical aspects of Rustin’s activism that were based on practical actions towards economic liberation.

The intention of Rustin seems more of a liberal interpretation than a biopic in tune with the actual man, serving instead to  insert Rustin into a certain narrative where labor organizers, socialists, communists, and leftists are  treated as peripheral to the Civil Rights Movement. The marginalization in Rustin is admittedly more subtle than previous cartoonish propaganda about the movement, but it is still there. And while to the credit of the film, it does acknowledge the participation of trade unions, including the UAW and Transport Workers Local 101, as being necessary to the success of the March – providing funds, resources, and transportation for thousands, the place of labor here is secondary, as opposed to foundational. It is as if labor is some extra muscle, while the brains of the operation are elsewhere. An egregious example of this is the treatment of A. Philip Randolph, prominent civil rights activist, trade unionist, and socialist, in the film. Randolph as president of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters Union is credited for laying the groundwork of the 1963 March as far back as the 1940s. In Rustinut he is cast more like a highly respected supporter and moderator in the conflicts between Rustin,MLK, Roy Wilkins (NAACP), and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, rather than as someone who was highly active in the movement throughout the time period Rustin takes place. Randolph was in fact instrumental in planning the 1963 March, and not just a supporting player. This was downplayed in the film, and the fact that he was a socialist ignored. 

Bayard Rustin’s Young Communist League past is mentioned a few times solely as a means of slander, and the only response is that he cut his ties years ago. The film offers no explanation, implying it was an unsavory affiliation regardless. Rustin left in the early 1940s after the party decided to support the Soviet Union, a conflict with his pacifist stance. No individual or party should be exempt from criticism, but it is interesting considering that socialists and communists,are either omitted or characterized in a negative light in a film supposedly championing Civil Rights. Rustin himself focused on economic planning and stability as the basis for true freedom. In a 1967 speech, he stated: “Dignity and self respect must spring from the economic and social position which you hold in society…… I say, my dear friends, that no economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color. It must be developed on the basis of class.” This is not to undermine Rustin’s commitment to the liberation of Black people in America, but he conceived of this goal in a very material way, and believed it would require actions not specific to race. Just a few years after the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, along with Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph, began writing the Freedom Budget for All Americans. The document was a “practical, step-by-step plan to eliminate poverty in America during the next 10 years.” Despite extensive lobbying, support from civil, labor, and religious leadership, and positive press, the budget failed. Unfortunate, but not surprising. Ending poverty is, after all, antithetical to capitalism. 

Of course, it’s a given that biopics take creative liberties. But there are ways to make changes and omissions that maintain the essence of a person or historical event. The choices made in Rustin are part of a greater pattern in liberal media where the economic injustice takes a backseat to other manifestations of marginalization and discrimination – even though these patterns tend to intersect. As a gay Black man, it’s a reality that he would experience both racism and homophobia – and that shouldn’t be ignored in telling his story. But it’s the way in which it’s done and the extent that are questionable. You expect to see personal moments, whether fully accurate or not, into Bayard Rustin’s life; it’s part of any biopic. But it says something about the filmmaker’s priorities to devote screen time to a wholly fictional love interest, in addition to a historical one, over a more in-depth look at Bayard Rustin’s politics, strategizing, and meticulous detail planning – which primarily manifests in the film as brain-storming sessions with, and giving directions to, eager student activists. 

The film culminates with a rather lackluster representation of the March on Washington and closes with Rustin, humble and dignified, volunteering to pick up trash while the leadership is invited to the Oval Office. Others look on in admiration. It’s a very sentimental, absolutely typical end for a biopic of this nature – but certainly not one befitting of someone as dynamic and influential as Bayard Rustin. In the film, Rustin’s friend described him wasting away at a desk job like “a shark trapped in a shot glass.” With the exception of perhaps Colman Domingo, it doesn’t seem that anyone working on this production really understood that insight.