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By Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 13+

Strong performances, racial violence in civil rights biopic.

Movie PG-13 2023 106 minutes
Rustin Movie Poster: Close-up of Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin

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Domingo's excellent performance elevates this biopic into a memorable and insightful drama. Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriters Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black argue that, because of his homosexuality and his commitment to socialism, Rustin never became a household name like Rosa Parks, John Lewis, or Medgar Evers. But the film makes it clear why he should be just as well known. At one point, Rustin says "the same day I was born Black, I was born homosexual," and he never tries very hard to hide his true self. As he plans the march's logistics, Rustin has an affair with Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married minister and activist who's fictional but a symbol for how, even in the 1950s and '60s, Rustin was fairly out. He also dated his White (and real) assistant/protégé Tom Kahn (Gus Halper). In one scene, Rustin shares another quippy one-liner to friend/confidant Ella Baker (Audra Thomas, fantastic in just a couple of scenes): "I am drawn to beauty -- White, Black, indeterminate. As long as they're passionate and smart."

Wolfe hasn't reinvented the biopic wheel with this film, but he and the writers don't shy away from showing that the civil rights movement was inhabited by humans. The men in charge of the movement disagreed, sniped at one another, were sexist, and played political games. Rock's Wilkins and Jeffrey Wright's smarmy Adam Clayton Powell are both portrayed as politically savvy and concerned that Rustin's private life will taint their efforts. Tobias A. Schliessler's cinematography captures moments both heartbreaking (the opening sequence, which shows both Ruby Bridges skipping toward school with U.S. marshals and sit-in demonstrators getting pushed and covered with condiments) and tender (Bayard singing "This Little Light of Mine" with Coretta and the King children). Two upsetting flashbacks, filmed in black and white, particularly stand out. The soundtrack and Branford Marsalis' score are also evocative, featuring jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, and classical music. See Rustin for Domingo's master class in acting and to learn more about one of the civil rights movement's unsung heroes.

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