Film Review – Rustin (2023)

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Colman Domingo is Rustin
 Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023

Rustin has been much talked about as a possible award contender, thanks to its brilliant acting, impressive soundtrack, and powerful story. The film tells the story of the longest peaceful protest to date: despite being set in the 1960s, this film is still incredibly relevant today. While the United States may not be racially segregated anymore, the fight for equality and freedom that we see portrayed in Rustin remains a very much-needed message in this day and age.

The focuses on its titular character, the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo). Based on the true story of Rustin, commonly known as the advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), the story brings to light the story of a man who is largely erased from the history of the civil rights movement. As the movie goes on, we follow Rustin’s fight for racial equality and human rights to which he dedicates his life. Although the movie gives us a general perception of his life, it mostly focuses on the 1963 March on Washington, organised by Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other prominent figures in the civil rights movement.

The film begins with a series of intertitles that not only introduce us to the historical context needed to understand this story but also help set the tone of the movie using one of the techniques of documentary filmmaking to establish how the story we are about to see comes from real-life events. Right after the intertitles, the film opens with the song “This Little Light of  Mine”, which also comes back later in the film in one of the most heartwarming moments of the film. The choice of the song is particularly relevant as it has historically been connected to the civil rights movement. Generally speaking, the soundtrack of the film, including many original songs such as Lenny Kravitz’s “Road to Freedom”, is extremely powerful, pairing really well with the scope of the story and the level of Colman Domingo’s performance.

Rustin is a film that relies very much on the incredibly strong acting performances that immediately pull us into the historical world of the film. Domingo’s performance is particularly a stand-out as his acting truly elevates the film, and this character, making us immediately care about Rustin and root for him during the whole film. With his performance, Domingo proves that the Oscar race is still very much not decided, despite some very strong contenders this year.  Much of the emotionality of the film is delivered both by the brilliant performances and by the script that immediately establishes the stakes of the film with memorable quotes and great pacing throughout.

During the film, Rustin talks about how he has always been forced to justify his existence. While this may be true for many other people in his place, it is clear throughout that the protagonist faces a double system of oppression as a Black man and as part of the LGBT+ community. The film perfectly depicts the concept of intersectionality and similarly touches, although briefly, on the intersectionality of gender and race discrimination too. This is addressed multiple times throughout the film, underlying how Rustin’s fight for freedom is against any system of oppression: as he says, “On the day I was born Black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

Although this is a biographical film, it mostly focuses on one singular event which proves to be a successful choice for this film as it brilliantly conveys the stakes of this singular historical moment. Similarly, this allows the film all the necessary time to analyse the history of the March on Washington in 1963 with all the complexities and challenges Rustin had to face to organize it. But the movie also manages to convey the past well, albeit briefly, through black-and-white sequences that, despite not being overly long, tell us everything we need to know about the protagonist’s previous history.

It never undermines the importance of this protest. When they just start organising it, Rustin explains why he needs this protest to happen on such a big scale saying that “all across the South, when Negro children sleep they see whites only signs instead of their dreams.” It is a fight for everybody’s future but, in particular, for the next generation who may know a kinder world than the one they were born into. This is shown through the involvement of young people in the very organisation of the protest who, along with Rustin, go above and beyond to make this all happen. And they succeed as the last few shots with a monumental crowd over Washington DC represent.

Rustin is an excellent biopic: while it does not play with the filmmaking form as much as other biographical films have done this year, it does convey a powerful story of a man a lot of people in the audience may not know much about as a figure that has been largely forgotten in history. However, it is not solely an educational film but it fully engages its audience emotionally as well as we desperately want to see Rustin succeed in organising his march and being recognized for his efforts as part of the civil rights movement.


Biography, Drama | USA, 2023 | 12 | Cinema & Netflix | 17th November 2023 | Netflix | Dir. George C.Wolfe | Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vin