A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Shows how civil rights workers and Black people in the 1950s and '60s put their lives and privacy at risk by participating in the civil rights movement. Explores how individuals (and the March on Washington) raised national consciousness about inequality and desegregation in the South. Explains how it took various groups and individuals in the movement to work together to plan and execute the March. Major themes include courage, empathy, integrity, self-control, perseverance, teamwork.
Positive Role Models
Rustin was committed to the civil rights movement, desegregation, economic equality, and helping to demonstrate peacefully in support of the humanity and equality of Black Americans. The movie shows how civil rights activists were human and flawed and engaged in in-fighting, but also how they supported and stood by one another, even when they didn't fully agree with one another's tactics. Martin Luther King Jr. is depicted as regretful for pushing Rustin away and as a devoted friend and believer in the importance of the parade. A. Philip Randolph is in his 70s and grieving the impending death of his wife but is still willing to take a leadership role in the March. Roy Wilkins is portrayed as distrustful and someone who dislikes Bayard Rustin, even though he's also doing important civil rights work as head of the NAACP.
The first feature film about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who hasn't historically had the same mainstream recognition as other civil rights leaders because he was also gay and a socialist. Cast is mostly Black (Rustin is played by Colman Domingo, who is also gay and Black). Director and co-writer -- George C. Wolfe and Julian Breece -- are gay and Black men. Movie focuses on Rustin's intersectional identity while affirming his important place in history. Women have small but key supporting roles. They're all activists: Ella Baker (Audra McDonald), Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), and Rachelle Horowitz (played by Lilli Kay). Violence is perpetrated against Black and gay characters. Slurs like the "N" word are used (by both Black and White characters).
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Violence & Scariness
Racial violence. In a flashback, police drag Rustin off of a bus and beat him, hitting his face repeatedly. White protestors yell angrily at, push, and pour condiments on nonviolent Black demonstrators and integrationists. Conversations about Black activists being killed or surrounded by and hurt by White men and police officers (these acts aren't shown). Police raid a gay bar and aggressively arrest the patrons. Footage of police turning fire hoses and attack dogs on young Black activists.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A few scenes of Rustin embracing, kissing, or flirting with Tom or Elias; in a couple of cases, one or both are shirtless or on a couch. A quick flashback to Rustin in a car with another man, unbuckling his belt before police arrive to arrest him. Rustin has a married lover.
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Racial terms/slurs, used by both White and Black characters: the "N" word, "ni--a," "Negroes." Also "ass" and insults like "arrogant," "ill-informed," "small-minded," "bloodsucking sons of whores," and "go suck your mother."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults drink at parties, bars, and alone. Rustin and other characters regularly smoke cigarettes. One smokes pot.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Rustin is a historical biographical drama about Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), who was a Black, gay, socialist activist for social change, desegregation, and economic equality through nonviolent protest and demonstration. Directed and co-written by and starring gay Black men, the film focuses on how Rustin originated and executed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963, even though he'd been sidelined from the civil rights movement because of his homosexuality. While there isn't as much racist violence here as in many other civil rights movies, expect a few scenes in which Black or integrated groups are attacked, yelled at, or pushed or become the victims of police violence. Police also aggressively raid a gay bar and arrest its patrons. The script includes racial slurs (the "N" word, "ni--a") as well as the gay term "queen," "sons of whores," "ass," etc. Rustin flirts with, embraces, and kisses two different men, one of whom is married and in the closet. Adults, particularly Rustin, drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and one character smokes a joint. The story -- which has clear themes of courage, perseverance, and teamwork -- is likely to spark thoughtful conversation about Rustin, his role in the U.S. civil rights movement, and how homophobia impacted his legacy. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
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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