Rustin: Justice for All

Movie Review by William Smythe

Bayard Rustin lived in not only two but three separate worlds. As a queer and black Communist, Bayard fit the bill for a true contender against the status quo of the mid-20th century. That status quo being injustice towards the black community and especially towards the queer community.

As a black man, Bayard fought for his people. But, as a gay man, he had to also fight for his own personal rights. The struggle to balance justice for his own worth all while fighting for his race is the true heart and dilemma of this biopic.

In the film, Bayard, played by the indomitable Colman Domingo, stands as a fervent crusader for all. Even though Bayard helps bring about major reforms and mentors major figures like Dr. King, his homosexuality sadly still marks him as a pariah in his community.

Bayard soon gets ousted from his position by Congressman Powell and NAACP President Roy Wilkins (as played by Jeffrey Wright and Chris Rock, respectively). Even after his resignation from the NAACP, however, Bayard remains a vocal proponent for civil disobedience and maintains a heroic status among the youth coalition. Eventually, he proposed the great lynchpin of the Civil Rights era: The March on Washington. Throughout the construction of the event, Bayard faces challenges within his own community, who see him as a fault, as an obstacle, rather than as the true heart of the Movement.

This movie proves that, though we think of Dr. King when we think of Civil Rights, the real hero we should praise as our American Gandhi is Bayard Rustin. Even by the end, when we come to King’s great speech at Washington, although the camera respects the power of the moment, its gaze (and King’s) returns to Bayard, who stands there among the crowd, as much a part of the people as for the people. Even after Rustin gets praised by his detractors and offered a seat at the table, he refuses though, preferring to help clean up with the community, a true Christlike act. Near the end of the film, Bayard, when faced with persecution yet again, states to King:

“When I was born black, I was born homosexual. Now either we truly believe in justice for all, or we do not.”

Wise words for modern times.