Rustin, directed by George C. Wolfe, and written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, is a biographical film about civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, and his role in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
At the beginning of the film, a conference that Bayard (played by Colman Domingo) is organizing with Martin Luther King Jr. gets cancelled because of a threat to make rumours of an affair between the two men public. These rumours were false but Bayard was a gay man and, because of this, he found himself working more behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement.
On more than one occasion, some of his colleagues called for Bayard to receive no public recognition for the march that he was organizing and, to assuage these concerns, Bayard worked as deputy director of the March. The film takes us through him putting the March together, bringing people on board and seeing its execution. He was a man who seemed to inspire people to get to work and was passionate and fearless about his convictions.
Rustin was the reason for Martin Luther King Jr.’s stance on non-violence, something that has become such an integral part of who we remember Dr. King to be. And just think, without Rustin’s work on the March on Washington, we may never have heard the iconic I Have a Dream speech. His life was so committed to his cause that he would have loved to see it advance without him at its helm, rather than for it to die proudly displaying his name.
I read a verse recently in a translation that said simply, ‘practice playing second fiddle,’ which is sometimes a hard thing to tell yourself but is also sometimes where you need to be. There’s a scene in the film where Rustin says something to the effect of, ‘the trashman isn’t less valuable to us just because he picks up trash’ (that was definitely a paraphrase) which summarised his whole outlook. The second fiddle isn’t less valuable than the first, and, for the good of the entire symphony, we need that second fiddle. That’s true commitment, if you ask me, one worthy of every recognition Rustin has gained posthumously and more.
But, even then, something tells me that what would make him feel truly honoured is if we upheld what he lived for.
Another translation of that verse says, ‘honour one another above yourselves’. What would we get if everyone honoured everyone else above themselves; if everyone was happy to play second fiddle for everyone else? Perfect harmony. That isn’t the world we live in, sadly, but it is great to see that honour being returned to someone who spent his life giving it. Rustin quite literally puts Bayard Rustin’s name back in the narrative and gives him his flowers as someone who fought for, and embodied, freedom for all.
Rustin is available in theatres on Friday, November 3rd, 2023 and streams exclusively on Netflix on November 17th, 2023.