- George C. Wolf
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 46 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
The overlooked civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), often called the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, is finally getting his due, thanks to the new film directed by George C. Wolfe. His 2020 film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom was well received, so I would hope this one will be also, thanks to the script by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black (the latter the writer of Milk). We should also note that this is another film in which the Obamas are also producers. Although the film is given its subject’s last name, this is not really a biographical film covering his whole life, but, instead, the story behind the great event at which MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. And unlike other anti-racist films, this one deals with homophobia as well, a form of hateful prejudice that predates even the four hundred years of racism in the US.
Right before the titles, we are given a quick C-R lesson in a series of brief clips—the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating schools; in a close-up a bottle of catsup being poured by a white onto the head of a Black student during a lunch counter sit-in; a transformation into live action of Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals to integrate a school in New Orleans in 1960; and high school student Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 walking through an angry white crowd, their hate-filled faces reflected in her sunglasses. A short but powerful sequence reminding us of the state of affairs in the middle of the 20th century.
After the titles we see Bayard Rustin and his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Aml Ameen) planning a demonstration at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. (Not depicted in this film–Rustin going down from New York in 1956 to advise Dr. King on tactics for the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The TV film Boycott shows how he persuaded Dr. King to put aside guns and adopt Gandhi’s nonviolence. Rustin himself had become interested in Gandhi and the latter’s nonviolent campaign to free India while he was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the US armed forces during WW 2, even journeying in 1948 to India to study under Gandhi’s top associates.)
Before they get far into their planning the homophobic U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) puts a stop to this when he threatens not only to out Rustin as a Communist and a homosexual, but to falsely claim that Dr. King and Rustin were lovers, unless he both calls off the demonstration and resigns from Dr. King’s SCLC board. At a meeting at NAACP HQ Rustin is taken aback when Dr. King accepts the resignation (that he thought would be turned down). Rustin feels betrayed as he and King reluctantly go their separate ways.
Rustin goes to work for the War Resisters’ League, and thus is active in the anti-war/anti-nuclear movement, but as we see at a party, the younger activists disdain him as a has-been. He does have one staunch supporter in A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), the long-time president and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with whom he had planned a March on Washington back in 1941. This was called off when FDR agreed to their demands to desegregate the defense industry. (Randolph is a labor and CR pioneer who deserves his own bio film!) Randolph agrees when Rustin starts thinking of a new March, and the latter’s enthusiasm and charm soon brings together a cadre of young activists willing to work the 12-to-15-hour days necessary to pull off such a massive affair within a few months.
At the NAACP, under the leadership of Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), Rustin’s proposed March is met with astonishment by its boldness—draw to Washington 100,000 people! Wilkins and others strongly oppose it as being “impossible,” but Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) head of the NAACP in Mississippi, joins Randolph in supporting Rustin. Wilkins and his staff walk out, and Randolph tells him that he must contact Dr. King and convince him to join them if the March is to become a reality.
As veteran CR organizer Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) speaks with Rustin, she also urges him to contact the one man who can make the March a going concern. Rustin, still hurting from Dr. King’s failure to back him when Powell had attacked him, is reluctant to do so, but realizes she is right. As he is boarding a bus for Georgia there is a flashback to 1942 when during the first Freedom Ride a cop beat him savagely for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Switch back to the present, and Rustin is reading an African American newspaper headline that Medgar Evers has just been shot.
The reconciliation scene in Atlanta is one of my favorites in this film, filled with many such inspirational moments. Coretta Scott King (Carra Patterson) greets him at the door of their home, surprised but pleased, insisting that he stay for dinner. Martin is out, but the four children are with her in the kitchen, the three older ones glad to see their “Uncle Rustin” again. He starts to sing with the children “This Little Light of Mine,” the children’s voices blending with his. Then evoking her past as a concert singer, he invites Corretta, who is holding the youngest child in her arms, to join her clear soprano voice with theirs. Hers is soaring over theirs as Martin walks into the house and sees Bayard leading his family in a musical parade around the dining room table. He is surprised, but obviously glad to reunite with his old friend.
After dinner they talk about the March and President Kennedy’s televised speech in response to the police dogs and fire hoses used against Black demonstrators in Birmingham. Rustin discounts this as just political window dressing and not a serious commitment to civil rights. They joke and admit to having missed each other, and before long with, Rustin’s promising no more “incidents” (referring to an arrest on the West coast during the 50s for “sexual perversion), his host agrees to get aboard.
Others who join the cause are long-time fighter for equal opportunities for women Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) as well as future Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes (Ayana Workman), both standouts because there are so few women among the C-R leaders—and these few are at secondary levels. Freedom Rider and SNCC Chair John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), James Farmer (Frank Harts) of C.O.R.E. and Whitney Young (Kevin Mambo) of the Urban League are convinced to join, though they have their doubts. Later, labor organizer and activist Cleveland “Cleve” Robinson ( Michael Potts) will travel to NYC to add his many skills to the project. At NAACP HQ Roy Wilkins summarily orders most of the attenders to leave the room during a discussion concerning the suitability of Bayard to head the proposed project. Cleve is so upset at being thrust out of the discussion that he yells insults at Wilkins as he is escorted out.
Bayard, Cleve, and the others wait while the acrid discussion unfolds inside the NAACP boardroom. Wilkins is vehement in his opposition. When Randolph emerges, he discloses that it is he, not Bayard, who has been appointed to head up the planning committee. He quickly adds, to the delight of everyone, that his first act is to name Bayard his deputy, to be in charge of the whole operation.
We see how enthusiastically the young activists move into a dilapidated building in Harlem and transform it into the nerve center for the March. Accepting their various assignments—fundraising, publicity and communications, transportation, food prep, the availability of water, security and crowd control, recruitment of celebrity supporters, sanitary needs, cleaning up afterwards, etc.—they go to work. Rustin concerns himself with virtually every detail, as per example when he over-rules a young woman’s intention of serving cheese sandwiches for the marchers. He argues for peanut butter ones. When she demurs because cheese would be more nutritious, he points out that it will be so hot on the August day of the March that cheese would melt and spoil.
The heads of all the civil rights agencies eventually agree to work together. Ther are dubbed “The Big Six.” Soon the planning committee is joined by four other leaders,that includes United Autoworkers Union President Walter Reuther and Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church Eugene Carson Blake, the group then becoming “The Big Ten.” During the back and forth talk among the leaders, Rustin has to agree to shorten what he desired as a two-day event to a one-day affair. Nor would demonstrators surround the White House as he had hoped. All agree that the March will be “For Jobs and Freedom,” and not so much a protest.
Amidst all the planning scenes are several flashbacks to Rustin’s past, including the already-mentioned 1942 Freedom Ride when a policeman beat him for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of the bus. He points to the large gap in his teeth where one had been knocked out. We also learn that he had been a professional singer, even recording an album of Spirituals and Elizabethan songs.
The script writers do not hide Rustin’s homosexuality, as well as revealing that Rustin was not at that time monogamous. He has been having an affair with a young white activist named Tom (Gus Halper) but suspends their personal relationship when Tom becomes his assistant in planning for the March. However, when Rustin meets the married Rev. Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) at NAACP HQ, each is attracted to the other. (Elias is a fictional composite of some real persons, as is Tom.) They eventually meet clandestinely in a gay bar and kiss. During one of their conversations Rustin tells his new lover that, unlike many homosexuals, he has never felt shame for his condition. This is because of his grandmother, a Quaker—from whom he also gained his belief in nonviolence. She had raised him after his mother had abandoned him. When he came out to her, she offered no objection or scolding, but merely accepted him as he was.
The much younger Taylor is about to inherit the pastorate of his father-in-law and thus is torn between Rustin and his family, his anguish intensified by the fact that his wife Claudia (Adrienne Warren) is pregnant. I wish I could say that Rustin called an end to their affair, but it is Claudia, confronting Rustin over the phone, who puts an end to their relationship. We also see a conversation that becomes heated when Rustin’s boss at The War Resister’s League A. J. Muste ((Bill Irwin) chastises Rustin for his lifestyle, ignorantly telling him that it was a choice he made to get back at his mother for abandoning him.
The film suffers from the brevity with which the actual March on August 26 is treated. The anxiety Rustin feels about the number who show up, as well as concern over any violence that might break out is well displayed, along with the hostility of the DC police toward him, but so much that happened that day is too briefly depicted. We see the long line of marchers—and I was glad to see that in the front row is the chief officer of my own denomination, Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake, identifiable in the group scene by his white skin and clerical collar. Some vintage footage is worked in with enacted scenes. And an engaging sextet of Black youth singa portion of “O Freedom” in glorious harmony
There were eight speeches besides Dr. King’s—including a short one by Dr. Blake and one by Daisy Bates of Little Rock fame—but you would think from this film that there was only one. (The one female allowed to speak was the result of Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman’s objection back during a planning session that not a single woman was on the slate of speakers. That excellent scene, with her passionately putting forth her objection, makes clear how paternalistic the Civil Rights Movement was, something that Rustin apparently was also complicit in without much awareness).
We do hear and see a part of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel song and then a portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech—but far too short a portion to achieve the exciting climax the filmmakers intended. The little piece of the oration shown is well after Jackson, sensing that his written speech was not connecting with the audience, called to him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Why in the world was this omitted!? The best part of the Speech sequence is at its end. There is a long, meaningful glance between Dr. King, when he has turned around, and looks at his mentor standing behind him, Bayard Rustin. That prolonged glance speaks volumes of their resurrected relationship and feelings toward each other.
“The Big Ten” receive an invitation to meet with President Kennedy in the White House, but not the chief organizer. One of the leaders says Rustin should be there too, but Rustin answers that a few weeks ago he’d “happily act as a trash collector if we pulled today off.” Left out again. But neither resentful nor discouraged.
I love the last shots of the unruffled Rustin, but will resist the temptation to describe the scene, other than to say that what he is doing might remind you of the ending of the delightful Bruce Almighty. Both films demonstrate what Jesus meant when he taught servant leadership to his disciples. If you remember but one of the wonderful scenes in this film, I hope this it. The end cards go on to inform us that 250,000 citizens showed up for the March; that Congress soon passed a Civil Rights Act; and that in 1977 Rustin fell in love with Walter Naegel and lived with him for the rest of his life.
This film serves as an inspiring tribute to a “forgotten hero,” one who definitely had his flaws, but his homosexuality was not one of them. Despite society’s labeling him as a “sex pervert” he was able to advance the cause of civil rights immeasurably. The couple of frank scenes with a same sex partner might prevent some church groups from watching the film together, but those that choose to do so will learn an immense amount about the ins and outs of the March on Washington that we recall on every MLK Holiday.
The cast of characters is a Who’s Who of the Civil Rights Era. (Though for some strange reason Dr. Dorothy I. Height, President of The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and who was responsible for the two leaders of SNNC to be included in the planning, was not portrayed.) At a time when our country seems so fractured that we fear that nothing can be accomplished, it’s helpful to look back and discover how fractious the Civil Rights Movements was, with leaders at first attacking each other or jockeying for the narrow benefit of his organization. Rustin teaches us to keep on hoping, that with the right kind of leadership, great things can be accomplished.
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