Review: ‘Rustin’ (2023), starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald

January 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan and Colman Domingo in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

“Rustin” (2023)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, from 1960 to 1963, the dramatic film “Rustin” (based on real events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Openly gay activist Bayard Rustin battles people inside and outside the civil rights movement in his plans for a large-scale peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., while his personal life has various entanglements.

Culture Audience: “Rustin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a compelling but somewhat formulaic biography about an influential civil rights activist who has historically been overshadowed by more famous people.

Aml Ameen in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

Colman Domingo gives a commanding and charismatic performance in “Rustin,” a briskly paced drama that tells the story of underrated civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who fought several public and private battles against racism and homophobia. It’s the type of movie that never lets you forget that you’re watching a drama, because the main characters often talk as if they’re giving speeches and lectures instead of having normal conversations. The movie delivers plenty of inspiration and heartfelt moments, but it zips around so much, some viewers will think that “Rustin” is a bit shallow and formulaic.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Rustin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s “Milk”) and Julian Breece co-wrote the screenplay for “Rustin.” The “Rustin” screenplay isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has many memorable moments because of the way that the cast members interpret the dialogue. For the purposes of this review, the real Bayard Rustin (who died in 1987, at the age of 75) will be referred to by his last name, while the movie character of Bayard Rustin will be referred to by his first name.

“Rustin” is not a comprehensive biopic, since the story takes place only during the years 1960 to 1963. However, the movie capably shows how Rustin is an often-overlooked influence in the U.S. civil rights movement and was a driving force in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Not all of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios are believable, such as the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen) becomes almost like a sidekick character whenever Bayard (played by Domingo) goes on rants about how Bayard wants things to be.

Although “Rustin” shows Bayard experiencing violent racism (shown mostly in quick flashbacks), the biggest conflicts he has in the movie is with other civil rights officials. “Rustin” takes a realistic look at how internal power struggles and feuds within the U.S. civil rights movement often caused damage to the movement and/or slowed down progress. And in case it isn’t obvious to viewers, Bayard points it out in a preachy comment after preachy comment that racism isn’t the only enemy to the civil rights movement.

Early on in the movie (which is told in chronological order), Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) tries to ruin Bayard’s reputation by spreading stories that Bayard (an openly gay bachelor with no children) and Martin (a married father) are secret lovers. Bayard vehemently denies this accusation and puts in his resignation notice with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because he thinks that Martin will back up Bayard and publicly urge him not to leave the NAACP.

However, Bayard (who was based in New York City during this time) doesn’t get Martin’s support, and the NAACP accepts Bayard’s resignation. It leads to a period of estrangement between Martin and Bayard, who becomes disillusioned with the NAACP and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Congressman Powell is portrayed as a power-hungry liar, but he isn’t the only person who becomes an enemy of Bayard.

Bayard’s main adversary in the movie is NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock), who disagrees with Bayard on almost everything. When Bayard comes up with the idea of having a massive protest that would bus in at least 100,000 people from around the United States, Roy tells anyone who’ll listen that it’s a terrible idea because Roy thinks the event would be too expensive and too hard to manage. The 1963 March on Washington ended up getting a crowd of about 250,000 people.

Roy (who is portrayed as egotistical and stubborn) also puts up a lot of resistance to Bayard’s plan to make it a two-day event, because Roy thinks a one-day event is more realistic. Bayard’s most loyal ally in these conflicts is union organizer A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), who is like a father figure to Bayard. Bayard’s biological family is not part of the story. (It can be assumed he’s estranged from his family members because they disapprove of his sexuality.)

Meanwhile, although Bayard is open about his sexuality to the people who are closest to him, he struggles with finding a life partner because he’s a workaholic who’s afraid of committing himself to one person. In real life, Rustin often blurred his personal and professional lives, by hiring his lovers as his assistants. He also frequently dated younger men, many who were white. In the movie, the character of Tom (played by Gus Halper), a white worker for the NAACP who becomes Bayard’s assistant, isn’t based on anyone specific but is a composite of these types of men who would be sexually involved with Bayard.

Tom’s on-again/off-again relationship with Bayard gets sidelined in the story when Bayard has a deeper emotional connection with a closeted Christian preacher named Elias Taylor (played by Johnny Ramey), whose wife Claudia Taylor (played by Adrienne Warren) expects Elias to be the heir to her pastor father’s church. “Rustin” gives glimpses into Bayard’s nightlife activities, such as Bayard going to gay bars or cruising for sex partners on the street, but these are very fleeting glimpses. During this time when it was illegal in the U.S. to be homosexual or queer, the movie has one scene showing law enforcement raiding a gay bar that Bayard frequented. Bayard luckily avoids getting arrested in this raid because he wasn’t in the bar at the time.

“Rustin” gives only a very short acknowledgement that although women were valuable members of the civil rights movement, women were often overlooked and underappreciated when it came to who got the most power and the most glory in the movement. Dr. Anna Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder) is depicted as the character who is the most outspoken about this sexism. Bayard temporarily appeases her by having her be a mid-level manager in the activities that he plans.

Although Bayard shows empathy and support for the women closest to him—including civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald)—in the end, he doesn’t place a high priority on elevating qualified women into the highest positions of power. The movie has numerous scenes of meetings with African American civil rights leaders, and there are no women in the room. Almost all of the people whom Bayard personally mentors are other men, including an eager young activist named Courtney (played by Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan), who has a platonic relationship with Bayard.

Meanwhile, most of the female actors in the movie are portraying characters who don’t have names and mostly do the work of assistants and secretaries. Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carra Patterson), who doesn’t have much screen time in “Rustin,” is shown in the movie only as a housewife, which is what her husband wanted her to be. In real life, she had a college education and her own accomplishments outside of being a wife and mother. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes a cameo as Mahalia Jackson performing at a rally led by Martin, but this scene-stealing appearance gives no further insight into Jackson’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Because “Rustin” tends to make Bayard a forceful and dominating presence in every scene that he’s in, other important civil rights leaders are reduced to a handful of soundbites. They include John Lewis (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Medger Evers (played by Rashad Demond Edwards), Cleve Robinson (played by Michael Potts), Whitney Young (played by Kevin Mambo) and James “Jim” Farmer (played by Frank Harts). The obvious intention is to make Bayard look larger-than-life, but it’s often to the detriment of realism and development of other characters in the story that should have been depicted in a more meaningful way.

Some of the movie’s dialogue is a little hokey. For example, in a scene with Tom and Bayard in Bayard’s home, Tom is getting ready to smoke a marijuana joint. Bayard mildly scolds him by saying about smoking marijuana: “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Tom replies, “Last time I checked, we were illegal.”

But the movie also delivers some memorable zingers, such as a scene where Bayard confronts Martin about homophobia among civil rights officials: “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.”

“Rustin” has a very talented cast, but it’s less of an ensemble movie and more of a showcase for Colman, who admirably brings a lot of soul and vigor to the role. Ameen is very good in the role of Dr. King, but the movie makes the Dr. King character become secondary to Bayard’s outspoken presence whenever they’re in the same room together. It’s a little hard to believe that Dr. King, who had his own strong personality, would be this subdued around someone with less power and less authority in making decisions for the civil rights movement. The movie gives credit to Rustin for influencing Dr. King to follow the non-violent philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi.

“Rustin” wants to make a point of how the real Rustin didn’t get enough credit for things he did behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. But by making him such a big personality who put himself at the center of conflicts, “Rustin” somewhat contradicts this movie’s message that the real Rustin was easily overlooked because he wanted to “fly under the radar.” It’s not until near the end of the movie that the character of Bayard shows humility in not seeking the spotlight for himself in the civil rights movement. A few more of these humble moments would have made the character more interesting and the movie more convincing in its premise that Rustin didn’t really want the widespread public recognition that he deserved.

Netflix released “Rustin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Riotsville, USA,’ an archival documentary about the U.S. government’s reactions to civil unrest in the 1960s

October 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Riotsville, USA” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Riotsville, USA”

Directed by Sierra Pettengill

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Riotsville, USA” features archival footage of white and African American people discussing how the U.S. government reacted to civil unrest in the 1960s, including the creation of mock cities on military bases to do riot drills.

Culture Clash: Many people believe that these government initiatives were created specifically to oppress civil rights activists, especially African Americans speaking out against systemic racism.

Culture Audience: “Riotsville, USA” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in civil rights history from the 1960s, but the movie has a tendency to give preference to politically left-wing viewpoints instead of having a more balanced variety of political perspectives.

A scene from “Riotsville, USA” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The archival documentary “Riotsville, USA” presents fascinating footage (the movie’s best asset), but the movie’s narration tends to be politically biased and preachy. Viewers can make up their own minds without being told what to think about the footage. At the very least, “Riotsville, USA” succeeds in its purpose to take a closer look at why the U.S. government reacted to the civil rights movement of the 1960s by building mock cities on military bases so that military and law enforcement could be trained on how to handle riots. A common nickname for such a mock city was Riotsville.

Directed by Sierra Pettengill, “Riotsville, USA” starts out strong in the first half of the movie, and then it becomes somewhat of a rambling compilation in the second half that presents a lot of left-wing talking points. The documentary has constant voiceover narration by Charlene Modeste from a screenplay written by Tobi Haslett. And although an archival documentary’s narration can be beneficial to put a lot of the footage in historical context, the narration of “Riotsville, USA” becomes a detriment when it forces a political bias (progressive liberal) perspective into the narration. It comes across as looking like the “Riotsville USA” filmmakers expected all viewers to automatically agree with this perspective just by watching this movie.

“Riotsville, USA” has no exclusive and new interviews with anyone giving “hindsight” perspectives, and yet the movie attempts to draw a throughline from the archival 1960s footage to 21st century civil unrest in the United States. The voiceover narration is the only “contemporary voice” heard in the movie, and that voice offers just one point of view. Therefore, “Riotsville, USA” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) looks exactly like what it is: a documentary that has a lot of meaningful archival footage but not enough contemporary perspectives.

“Riotsville, USA” opens with this background information on a title card: “This film consists of archival material from the late 1960s. All of the footage was created for broadcast television by the U.S. military.” In other words, because it was footage made by the U.S. government, the public has the right to access it under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the begnning of “Riotsville, USA,” the voiceover narration has this to say about the U.S. civil rights movement: “A door sprung open in the late 1960s and someone, something sprang up, and slammed it shut. Nothing that big, that bright, had ever happened. And in so many American cities, nothing so fierce or hard to grasp. The riots blew the roof off daily life.”

The movie then goes on to cite, as examples, the “riots” or “citizen uprisings” (depending on how you want to describe these events) in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965; Chicago in 1966; and Newark, New Jersey, in 1967. Detroit and many other cities had this type of society unrest in the mid-to-late 1960s. What all of these violent events had in common were discontent over racial inequalities and white supremacist oppression in America.

In July 1967, then-U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (a moderate Democrat) announced the formation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, whose members (all prominent politicians or other civic leaders) were appointed by Johnson. Otto Kerner Jr., who was governor of Illinois at the time, was named the commission chairman. The 11-member commission consisted of nine white men, one African American man and one white woman.

The commission’s purpose was to investigate why many civil rights protests in the U.S. were devolving into racial violence, even though a prominent civils-rights leader such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached non-violence. The narration in “Riotsville, USA” offers this explanation: “The people took revenge on the cities that confined them—retribution for a history of containment and contempt.” The narration then goes on to say, “Johnson wanted the Kerner Commission to substantiate his belief that many of the riots were incited by outside agitators.”

“Riotsville, USA” has news footage of a group of unidentified men and women (white and black) being interviewed about this commission to get the “ordinary citizen” perspective. The white men who are interviewed seem to be the most supportive of the commission, while the women (of both races) and the black men are a little more hesitant or skeptical. When asked what he thinks about the commission, a middle-aged African American man pauses, as if he’s knows that he has to be careful of what he’s going to say on camera, and replies (not very convincingly) that he thinks it’s a good idea. An African American woman, who appears to be his wife or companion, is more forthright with her opinion: “My greatest concern is, “Have we asked the people who are in need of the program what their needs might be?'”

Around the same time that this commission was doing its investigation, the U.S. military had been setting up mock Riotsville cities on military bases. “Riotsville, USA” shows some 1967 footage from one of these riot drills at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Other parts of the movie shows footage from other riot drills at other military bases. The audiences attending these drills were usually members of the military and officials from other members of the government, who watched the drills like they were watching a spectator sport.

These drills, with members of the military playing different roles, usually had the same predictability: Protestors (all men) shouting protest clichés, being rowdy, pretending to loot stores, and committing other crimes—and then being defeated and arrested by those in the roles of the military or the police. There weren’t enough black people involved in this role playing, so many of the white “actors” were cast as black people. A few even showed up in “black face” in order to pretend to be black, which would be considered a lot more racially offensive today than it was back in 1967.

In February 1968, the commission’s study was published in “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” also known as the Kerner Report, which went on sale to the public and became a bestseller. The report came to this conclusion, as quoted in the documentary: “The U.S. is moving into two societies—one white, one black—separate but unequal.” The year 1968 was also pivotal and tragic in U.S. civil rights history because it was the year that civil rights leader King and Robert F. Kennedy (who was a U.S. presidential candidate at the time) were assassinated.

“Riotsville USA” then turns to a lot of footage from “Public Broadcast Laboratory,” a public-affairs news/talk show on National Education Television, which was the U.S. TV network that was the predecessor to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). One of the archival interviews shows a lively “Public Broadcast Laboratory” interview with civil rights activists Dr. Kenneth Clark, Bayard Rustin and Charles Hamilton. There’s also some footage from the show of Jimmy Collier and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick performing their 1969 song “Burn, Baby, Burn.”

The documentary also mentions that Republican lawmakers often complained that “Public Broadcast Laboratory” had too much of a liberal bias, but the documentary fails to mention what “Public Broadcast Laboratory’s” response was to this criticism. The show’s footage that was chosen focuses strictly on African American civil rights leaders talking about race relations in America. It’s mentioned in the documentary that “Public Broadcast Laboratory” was cancelled in 1969, after the Ford Foundation withdrew funding for the show.

The “Riotsville, USA” narration points out: “At the end of the Kerner Commission’s report, there was an addendum titled ‘Supplement on the Control of Disorder.’ Its recommendations were the only parts of the report that Congress would ever implement … In 1968, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.”

In April 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed. It includes the Anti-Riot Act, which makes “travel in interstate commerce … with the intent to incite, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot.” The April 1968 assassination of King resulted in protests and riots in many big U.S. cities, including Chicago. “Riotsville, USA” has a brief TV interview clip of then-Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley saying that the Riotsville simulations were helpful in training Chicago law enforcement on how to deal with the riots.

The civil unrest during the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami also stemmed from racial issues. Much of the unrest was in Miami’s mostly black neighborhood of Liberty City, where protests by mostly young black people were happening at the same time as the Republican National Convention. According to “Riotsville, USA” NBC News incorrectly reported that the reason for the protests were that the protesters were unhappy about there being a small number of black delegates at the convention.

However, archival footage shows that the main reason for the protests were that demands weren’t being met for Liberty City to controlled by more black people. These demands included better programs for poor people, a guaranteed income (in other words, a higher minimum wage), and more black police officers and more black firefighters in Liberty City.

Miami officials had promised to meet with Liberty City leaders but failed to show up for the meeting. And so, the riots began. Reverend Theodore Gibson, a civil rights leader, is seen in archival footage commenting on this political snub: “You can’t lie to people forever and get away with it.”

The documentary also includes unsettling footage of the chaos in the Liberty City streets, where violence and fires were breaking out. An unidentified white man who was driving on one of the streets had a car with a George Wallace (conservative Republican politician) bumper sticker on the car. The car was vandalized, and the man was almost brutally attacked until he helped to safety by some compassionate black people. Police and the National Guard later responded to the riots with tear gas and brutality.

Bob Reed, an African American TV journalist who was on the scene for Channel 4 News in Miami, is shown being interviewed by a Channel 4 colleague about why Reed thinks the riots happened. He replies, “Pent-up anger, frustration, the idea of being trapped in society. It’s a bursting out, a breaking free. It’s just a way of saying, ‘I will accept the abuse no longer.'”

“Riotsville USA” would have been a better documentary if its editing had better storytelling. Much of the documentary is just archival footage strung together with a one-note narration of how the U.S. government came up with tactics to crack down on violent protests. And frankly, none of it is shocking, although “Riotsville USA” wants to act like it’s more shocking than it really is.

And without diverse political viewpoints, “Riotsville, USA” seems like a very one-sided exercise in trying to stir up political outrage over facts that are decades old. There isn’t a lot of information given about the Riotsville simulations that inspired the title of this documentary, other than to show the footage of these simulations. However, there’s enough overall archival information in “Riotsville, USA” to serve as a valuable history lesson and a reminder that many of the problems that resulted in protests in America in the late 1960s are problems that still result in protests today.

Magnolia Pictures released “Riotsville, USA” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 16, 2022.

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