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Laramie Movie Scope: Rustin

A Giant in the Civil Rights Movement

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 10, 2024 – Bayard Rustin, a giant in the civil rights movement in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, is the subject of this historical drama, centered on Rustin's homosexuality and his work organizing one of the largest political demonstrations in the history of the nation, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

Rustin is one of those people that every school student should know. His civil rights record is long, varied, inclusive and outstanding. His life was devoted to public service from an early age until his death (he died while on a humanitarian mission in Haiti). He taught Martin Luther King about the power of non-violent activism. He advocated for Jewish rights in Russia, and campaigned against colonialism in Africa, and he was an antiwar activist. His beliefs were just as varied, from the communism of his youth, to neoconservatism later in life.

Rustin (played by Coleman Domingo of “The Color Purple”) gets the idea for the March on Washington and recruits some young organizers, along with an old lion of the civil rights movement, A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman of “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”). Rustin and Randolph had long ago led the fight to successfully eliminate segregation in the U.S. military. Randolph and Rustin approached the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to get support for the march.

The NAACP, headed by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock of “Dolemite Is My Name”) is opposed to the march on Washington. That opposition leaves Rustin with only one option, his old, estranged friend, Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen of “Yardie”). Only King has the power to attract 100,000 people for a march on Washington.

The trouble is, Rustin has a grudge against King, who failed to back him in a previous controversy, forcing him to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rustin had been friends with King, since the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1956, but never forgave King for what he considered to be a betrayal. Now, he was forced to return to King's home, hat in hand, hoping for King's support, and he gets it.

With King's backing, the march is on, and that means a lot of organization to arrange speakers, buses, crowd control, food, sanitation and cleanup in just seven weeks. One purpose of the march is to bring together a number of organizations, some of which are feuding with each other over different tactics to achieve freedom.

Rustin organizes all this with a group of volunteers, including his boyfriend, Tom (Gus Halper of “Cold Pursuit”) Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder of the “NCIS: New Orleans” TV series) and many others. Because of Rustin's political baggage, his homosexuality and his Communist background, he agrees to stay in the background. Randolph is the titular head of the march, but Rustin is the real organizer.

Rustin's main opposition, at least in first is from Roy Wilkins, but later, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurman a civil rights opponent, came out strongly opposed to Rustin, calling him a “communist and a pervert.” Representative Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright of “American Fiction”) the first black to be elected from New York, is also a long time vocal opponent of Rustin's.

Rustin also gets push back from the Washington D.C. police department, and other organizations, which force march organizers to scale back the march from two days to one day, and make other cutbacks. Rustin is also dealing with personal issues. Although he promises to behave for purposes of the march, he doesn't.

He has an affair with a married minister and civil rights leader, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey of “Always a Bridesmaid”). This affair makes Tom jealous, as well as Taylor's wife. When Taylor and Rustin are almost caught in a police raid in Washington, Taylor gets scared and breaks off the affair. Rustin is trying to keep all this personal drama out of the newspapers while organizing the march.

I believe that Coleman Domingo's powerful performance should be recognized by the Academy Awards this year as one of the best by a leading man in 2023. Coleman exudes a wide variety of emotions and seems to be every bit the inspirational leader that Rustin was. While the screenplay, by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, is compelling, the plot seems to be more of a soap opera than it really needs to be.

In the movie, directed by George C. Wolfe of “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” it appears that Rustin recruited Randolph for the march, but it was really the other way around. The characters of Tom and Elias Taylor are both fictional. There may have been other minor historical details that were changed in the movie, but I did not run across any others in my research, except that Rustin is a vastly more important historical figure than what is seen in the narrow focus of this movie, streaming on Netflix (Barack and Michelle Obama are among the film's executive producers). This movie rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2024 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]