By Alex Smith Jr.
I went to an advance screening of the film RUSTIN last night (Oct. 12, 2023). It was opening the 35th Anniversary of the LGBTQ+ Annual Film Festival here in NYC. This film is a triumph plain and simple. I am trying to hold back from using to many superlatives to lavish on this film.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, I thought the film would be good, but I had forgotten how much of a genius Wolfe is. The film is much better than just good. RUSTIN works on every level of filmmaking from the screenplay to the superior storytelling, the individual performances, and character portrayal/development and of course sharing the story of one of history’s unsung heroes. The film over performs!
Start to finish the story keeps you engaged there is no single false moment in it. Coleman Domingo who plays Bayard Rustin in the film so completely embodies the character, so you fully relate to his story. He of course dominates this film.
His portrayal encompasses the character with such depth of spirit. You get a look into the life of a Black gay/sgl man of his time. He is so sensitive, real and unapologetic in this portrayal.
This portrayal never sinks into gay stereotypical characterizations which IMO there is still too much of that on film, television and in theater. To Wolfe’s credit the film never sinks into what would have been easy and predictable.
Rustin’s homosexuality becomes the greatest obstacle for him to overcome as one of the architects and directors of the historic 1963 March on Washington. It’s clear this became an obstacle because of the straight men involved with the civil rights movement. These titans included Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., James Farmer, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins (just look at those names!), this is the central conflict of the film and Rustin masterfully overcomes it.
It was amazing to see the depiction and interaction of all those great civil rights leaders. These were all Black men from different perspectives working to overcome a racist America. Despite their difference together they found a way achieve something monumental.
The film educates its audience in so many ways. First and most importantly it shows Rustin’s impressive organizational skills while telling a great historical story. It shares insights into political characters, their disputes and differences of opinions between the civil rights leaders, while remaining engaging and not preachy.
Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald are simply excellent as are all the cast. Be warned! The film also has some highly emotional moments that will make you weep.
The audience reaction was the icing on the cake for me. The audience was comprised of mostly young Black LGBTQ+ people under 35. I was overjoyed to see their reaction to the film. They were ESTACTIC from start to finish. They applauded throughout, they cheered, and they cried.
The guy in front of us literally was sitting on the edge of his seat through the entire film. A film biography of a man who made an impact at least three generations ago and can evoke a response like that from this present generation is beyond special. RUSTIN should be an odds-on favorite for many Oscars but even without that it is a triumph still.
By the way, Barack and Michelle Obama were producing partners on this film. Don’t you just love them. The film premiered in November and is now in theaters and on Netflix.
I am giving nothing away since it is all well-known history, but it’s the historical details that most of us do not know. It also delved it the lack of female speakers in the March. I will not give those details away – see the film.
P.S. I did have one occasion to see Baynard Rustin. I was about 15 and I was coming out of the subway station at the A & C line at Hoyt & Schermerhorn St. It was in the afternoon, and I saw this very tall, very dark distinguished looking man with this grey hair and a blue pin striped suit. It was Rustin. There was no missing him, he towered over everyone, and he strode like a king. Whenever I am in that station now, I think of that passing encounter.