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A New Window into the Civil Rights Movement Opens (but not Wide Enough): Ujima Screens Rustin

A film review of Rustin (screened at Ujima Wednesdays in February to celebrate Black History), written by Kristen Halbert.

The adage, “All my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk,” fully characterizes George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, a biopic which takes on the depiction of an often under-appreciated and overlooked figure in the mid-century Black Civil Rights Movement. Our titular hero (Bayard Rustin), played magnificently by Colmon Domingo, struggles against the movement establishment throughout the film’s hour and forty-eight minute runtime. While Rustin’s power and adeptness as an organizer could not be denied, neither could his queer identity be reconciled–and this forms the crux of the conflicts. When such a visionary’s  comrades can undermine their work due to their repressive beliefs, where does that leave them? Where does that leave us? 

The callousness that faced Rustin in his interactions with Black male leaders like Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP, (played by Chris Rock) and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) may come as a surprise to those who only know the movement through its popularized arm-in-arm, black & white photos; but it will feel very familiar to those of us with doubly marginalized identities. The film opens with conversations among several of these men, all discussing the “threat” someone like Rustin posed to the fight for civil rights. These conversations present the same respectability politicking that made Rosa Parks the face of the bus boycott over Claudette Colvin. Thankfully, we as viewers spend limited time with these naysayers outside of ensemble scenes around long boardroom tables (that nevertheless serve as important reminders of the walls of internal adversity that Rustin faced). 

Rustin primarily shares the little-lauded true story of it’s eponym’s leadership in the planning and execution of the March on Washington, and devotes significant time to the personal relationships that lifted him up (as well as the relationships that threatened to hold him back). Domingo brings the force and fury of decades of forgotten history, playing the role as unapologetically as Rustin himself lived. His charisma makes it impossible to pull your eyes away, even in moments of brokenness or fear, and his brilliant delivery of sharp one-liners and insightful reads is balanced by quiet, sometimes painfully lonely turns in Rustin’s apartment where many of the film’s most personal scenes take place. Domingo shows Rustin’s charm to have been a shield, a sword, and an inimitable part of his personality in what is sure to be an award-worthy turn. 

left, Colman Domingo; right, Bayard Rustin.

It’s best to focus on Domingo’s electric performance–viewers  are left with little choice otherwise, as the film fleshes out few outside characters (despite the ensemble cast’s composition of strong Black leads). Since the March on Washington is a historical inevitability rather than a mere possibility, the film’s plot plods along as a straight-forward civic procedural and we miss out on critical background context that would have illuminated the march’s inner workings; supporting roles are treated as scene dressing, rather than as key parts of the movement. Beyond Rustin’s two love interests, who are given just enough screen time and drama for us to emotionally invest in them, the closest character to escaping caricature is Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen). Yet even King’s narrative suffers in a familiar way–he’s too big to feel nuanced. A quiet moment between the two, after Rustin travels to King’s home to bring him back into the fold of the march, is one of few opportunities we receive to see their friendship on screen. The relationship between the two brothers in struggle is central to the moral and political story arcs: so it is strange to not be given more opportunities to witness how they leaned on each other in the face of external and intra-communal adversity. 

Rustin takes a familiar, nationally significant event and tries to bring us into the intimate nature of organizing, where egos, optics, and fealty present constant threats to the progress of the movement. Rustin also forces a reckoning with the romanticized past of the civil rights movement, which was not to create equality for all people, but for those whose identities fell in line with society’s boundaries in every way but race. Though the film’s execution is unbalanced at times, it’s still an admirable first pass at telling this leader’s story with the intention it deserves.


Kristen Halbert is a social impact strategist by day and writer for Forces of Geek in her personal time (primarily covering BIPOC, movement, and women-led films). In addition to moderating and serving on festival panels across Boston, she has interviewed multiple writers and actors from Daveed Diggs to Kumail Nanjiani. Always looking to elevate our stories, Kristen serves on the planning committee for the Boston Comics in Color Festival -- an annual comic arts event for fans, artists, and writers of comics by and about people of color. She is thankful to call Roxbury her home.


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