FILM REVIEW — Portrait of a forgotten civil rights hero

Published 12:04 am Friday, November 17, 2023

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Directed by George C. Wolfe

Starring Colman Domingo, Aml Ameen, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Rock, Audra McDonald and Da.Vine Joy Randolph

Rated PG-13

3 ½ Stars

We all know about the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but I’m guessing most of us don’t know the details about how that event came to be.

I’m also guessing that most of us don’t know about its principal organizer, Bayard Rustin, although a new biography on Netflix hopes to shed some light on this polarizing and regrettably forgotten fighter for civil rights.

Rustin (played here by Colman Domingo) was one of the main organizers who planned the March. He was praised for his abilities, but also condemned by his fellow activists because he was openly homosexual.

They felt there might be public backlash against his inclusion, so they sought to hide his presence.

Rustin refuses to be pushed aside, reminding his fellow organizers “they either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

This fight to be seen and treated as an equal drives this movie. On its surface, it’s the story about the struggle to pull off the March on Washington, but it doesn’t shy away from the gay elements that were part of Rustin’s character.

I do understand why his name wasn’t trumpeted at the time as one of the leaders of the movement, but cultural opinions have certainly changed over the past 60 years. It’s time to give the man his flowers.

Perhaps that’s why this film is being produced by none other than President Barack and Michelle Obama. They recognized Bayard Ruston’s story needed to be told, and with their involvement, the film was able to attract an impressive list of actors to populate this cast.

Yet the true star of the show here is Colman Domingo, who is brilliant in this Oscar-worthy performance.

It’s a fiery performance, punctuated by Domingo’s memorable line delivery as well as his unapologetically toothy smile. He lost one of those teeth after having been beaten by a police officer, so every time he grins, the world is reminded there is a history of pain behind his efforts for equality.

That being said, this is a film that remembers, but doesn’t dwell exclusively on past traumas. Much like MLK’s speech, this is a movie the focuses on the optimistic struggle for a better tomorrow, rather than reliving past atrocities.

That makes the “Rustin” easy to enjoy as a dignified portrait of a forgotten man. Domingo’s charismatic performance also makes this film into pleasurable viewing.

We are a long way from actually filling out an Oscar ballot, and there are many worthy performances yet to come, but I hope voters remember Colman Domingo’s assured performance when it comes time to vote for the year’s Best Actor.

For my money, this is the most memorable performance I’ve seen this year.

Movie reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published each week by Orange Newsmedia and seen weekly on KFDM and Fox4. Sean welcomes your comments via email at