Think of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and what likely pops to mind is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But none of that would have come to be without the before-now-unsung hero Bayard Rustin, who conceived and galvanized a fractured group of activists to make the march a reality against immense odds, given the obstacles created both by some inside and outside the civil rights community.
The Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will present one showing only of the highly acclaimed new film “Rustin” on Sunday, Dec. 10, at 4 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It’s a must-see on the big screen to catch the nuances of the excellent acting and well-orchestrated scenes. The film shines a light on the extraordinary architect of the 1963 march. Emmy awardwinner Colman Domingo plays Bayard Rustin with mesmerizing finesse from the first moment he appears onscreen to the poignant last. In between, we follow the fascinating and inspiring story of how what remains the largest peaceful protest to date went from concept to reality.
The fast-paced movie, superbly directed by multiple Tony awardwinner George C. Wolfe and a sophisticated script from Julian Breece and Academy awardwinner Dustin Lance Black, is both intimate and sweeping. Rustin was a complex man — an early civil rights activist, including pioneering the technique of nonviolent protest, being openly gay before Stonewall, and ceaselessly headstrong in an era when being all that and Black meant that everything had to be fought for. He cares deeply and passionately not just for the cause, for which he’s suffered in many ways — including physically, at the hands of the police, but very much, too, about the people in it.
Prominent among them is his complicated relationship with Dr. King, which is sorely tested early in the movie. A rift ensues that clearly tears Rustin apart, and their eventual reconciliation is critical to making the march a reality and in making both men happy.
The film includes a good many other key players of the era, among them labor union organizer A. Philip Randolph, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, as well as field secretary Medgar Evers, and Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. — and not everyone rallies around Rustin. One of the things the film makes clear is the tense, fractured environment within the Black community surrounding the march. In an early scene, followers of Malcolm X bully Rustin as irrelevant. Powell is seen trying to undermine Rustin by spreading lascivious rumors about him and King. When Rustin first goes before the NAACP, they rebuff his efforts as sheer madness. But he is dauntless, and excellent with grassroots efforts, especially among the young. And the scene in which he rallies what becomes his steadfast cohort fills you with tangible optimism.
The film tells the story within the larger political context. The urgency to organize the event in just a few short months comes when Kennedy is heard on television after the devastating Birmingham demonstration saying he is going to try to get the Civil Rights Bill passed, which Rustin and the organizers know won’t occur without the additional pressure that will come about through the high-profile march.
It’s a race against time, and Rustin is eventually able to navigate the political quagmire, dodge threats, raise the money, and galvanize his team to organize the endless logistics, including recruiting not the promised 100,000 but 250,000 attendees, who turned out from across the nation.
Nine months later, the Civil Rights Act, preventing discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, was passed by Congress. Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And after watching “Rustin,” knowing this makes you want to cheer.
“Rustin” screens on Sunday, Dec. 10, at 4 pm. Tickets, $15, benefit the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP’s Scholarship Fund, as will the proceeds from a raffle to be held at the screening. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Film Center or online at mvfilmsociety.com/2023/11/rustin.