Review: Rustin


Diversity, inspiration, compassion, and transformation are the guiding principles of Higher Ground (HG), the Obamas’ production company. Michelle Obama says, “I always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others” (BBC).

So the perfect fit for the Obamas was the story of Rustin Bayard and his masterminding of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, DC. Perhaps too controversial and ground-breaking, HBO passed up on producing this film. But the no-fear Obamas took it on and it is now available on Netflix (NYT).

By the time this film begins, Bayard Rustin is already around 50 years old with a courageous history of fighting injustice. However, by 1963 there were rifts and power struggles within the civil rights movement and Whites were willing to do anything to keep their privileged status. Rustin’s private life became a bargaining chip and MLK had to decide whether to keep him as the genius event coordinator for the 1963 March or not.

That is the germ of moral quandary and righteousness that threads through this great film. Unfortunately, “Rustin” has received controversial attention because so many feel the movie was more about Rustin’s private life than his determining role in the Civil Rights Movement. But how can one be without the other?

First of all, despite the fictionalized affair with a pastor (NYT) that is used to represent his romantic life, “Rustin” is a magnificent piece of history about the organization of the 1963 March on Washington, the event that featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Second, it is also a remarkable story of a man who embodied courage, justice, truth, and democracy.

Bayard Rustin was the charismatic mover behind that 1963 protest of 200,000 as well as MLK’s first teacher on the mechanics and power of non-violent protests. Brilliantly played with passion and determination by Coleman Domingo, Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, Rustin charismatically overcame stigmatization to mastermind the greatest social movement event in the history of America. Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright and Johnny Ramey, who plays a pastor who falls in love with Rustin, form a powerful ensemble around the powerful Domingo.

Bayard Rustin was an inspiring champion of peaceful resistance, organizing non-violent protests, events, and movements as early as his college years. Not long after receiving activist training from the Quakers, he began his career of peaceful protest by becoming a conscientious objector against the draft. This led to his incarceration from 1944 to 1946. However, in prison, he also organized two protests against racially segregated housing and dining facilities.

I think the Obamas championed this film because they saw Rustin’s role as transcendent. Not only did he sacrifice and struggle for civil rights, but he also began a crusade for the acceptance of the gay population.

This film is on Barack Obama’s list of top 13 movies for 2023. Overshadowed by epics like “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Maestro,” it has received far too little attention and should have at least been in the top 10 Oscar nominations for Best Picture.

Martin Luther King said, “Mr. Rustin is one of the most moral, one of the most decent human beings I have ever known.”

“Rustin” is worth seeing and being inspired.

Rating: 10/10


Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenplay: Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black
based on a story by Julian Breece
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Tonia Davis, and George C. Wolfe
Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, and Audra McDonald
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Music: Branford Marsalis
Produce Companies: Higher Ground (Michelle and Barack Obama) and Bold Choices
Release: Nov. 3, 2023
Official Website:
Where to see: Netflix

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