Rustin, the new Netflix film, documents Bayard Rustin—a lesser known Civil Rights organiser but one of huge significance. Martin Luther King is widely seen as the hero of the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Rustin was a leading organiser and activist against racial segregation in the US. But he was also a gay man fighting against homophobia, inside and outside the movement.
It focuses on Rustin’s brilliant organisational role in building the March on Washington in 1963, which involved 250,000 people. This was where King made his “I have a dream” speech.
Rustin aimed to put pressure on the wavering Democratic president John F Kennedy and the US establishment to pass the Civil Rights Act that year.
The march was Rustin’s brainchild and he led the planning of it.
Yet he had to fight to even get the project off the ground and was regarded as a pariah by some. The unity of the oppressed was not automatic.
The director George C Wolf dramatises the contradictions in Rustin’s position. He had been involved in the Montgomery bus boycott and was the organiser with the most creative flair in the anti-racist movement.
But he was an openly gay black man with a previous conviction in a period where gay relationships were illegal.
Therefore, he was targeted not only by Republican reactionaries, but also by some leading, “respectable” black members of the Democratic Party.
They included Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and the more conservative elements of the NAACP civil rights organisation, such as Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock).
He was attacked because he was an ex-Communist, keen to involve unions in the march. He had refused the draft because of his non-violent beliefs. Blackmail, slurs and lies become an everyday threat.
Colman Domingo plays Rustin emphasising his wit, humour and rhetorical skills that defeat his enemies and win influential friends. The relationship between Rustin and King (Aml Ameen) is beautifully crafted.
The moment in the film when King publicly defends Rustin from homophobic insults is a brilliant vindication of Rustin’s importance to the movement.
As one character says about King and Rustin, “Together… you are fire.” The uneasy alliance against racism becomes a committed and united fight against bigotry.
The representation of Rustin’s two relationships with men in the film is cleverly used to show other contradictions.
His off/on relationship with a white activist explores the difficulties placed on monogamous gay relationships with the divisions of race and sexuality in the 1960s.
His relationship with an NAACP black Baptist minister reveals the fears about coming out and the religious pressures on black gay men.
This was the era before Stonewall Riot of 1969. The film rises to a victorious, emotional conclusion with the successful March on Washington.
The final scene presents Rustin as a man who recognises his own class background and his belief in a grassroots movement. The film successfully presents an inspirational character who was determined to fight back despite the dangers.
Therefore, it only touches on the limitations of a non-violent strategy when some characters oppose Rustin’s pacifism with the Malcolm X’s ideas at the beginning of the film.
But it’s important to see Rustin as a radicalising influence at the time, who took the struggle against racism forward. Rustin is a fascinating and moving account of the fight against oppression.
As Rustin says to his black male lover, “You have the right to love and be loved.”
Rustin is available to watch on Netflix