The recent biopic Rustin (2023) tells the backstory of the 1963 March on Washington, specifically how Bayard Rustin organized the event. Sure everyone remembers Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering that iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But it was the herculean effort of Black queer civil rights activist Rustin that made the event happen in the first place.
Portrayed by Colman Domingo (who has received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role), Bayard is a vivacious, passionate, quirky, driven man who is the epitome of the power behind the throne. He has great ideas and knows how to get shit done, but he’s not the face of the movement, he doesn’t speak to the crowds. He can inspire folks to work for a cause, but he’s not the one who makes the cause everyone else’s cause too. Rustin and MLKJ are shown as a crucial pairing.
But this relatively short, tight film isn’t just about how the march happened, although that’s what carries the plot along. This is also a portrait of an unapologetically gay man in the repressive 1960s America, shown with sensitivity and realism. At one point, when being blackmailed by those who would shut down the march, Bayard proclaims: “On the day that I was born black, I was born a homosexual. They either believe in justice and freedom, or they do not.”
While the plot delves into the internecine fighting between the NAACP and the more progressive elements of the civil rights movement (with some allusion to arguments among liberals today, at least IMO), equal attention is paid to Bayard’s personal life. He’s shown having two overlapping affairs, both with slightly younger men — one is a white union activist Tom Kahn (a real person who did have an ongoing relationship with Rustin) and the other is a Black preacher Elias Taylor (presumably a fictional character). They ways each play out illustrate the complications of queer life in the period in a particularly intersectional fashion.
Plus, there’s a lovely scene that includes one of Bayard’s albums, Elizabethan Songs & Negro Spirituals, and he starts playing a lute! Actually there’s a lot of great music in this movie, from the soundtrack to singing by Bayard and Coretta Scott King (who had studied at New England Conservatory of Music).
The final scenes are of the March on Washington itself, and while you’ve probably seen the newsreel footage before, the way it’s interspersed here with recreations and these actors is moving. The day is less about that one speech and more about bringing people together in support of jobs and freedom for African Americans.
Most of the action is set in the eight weeks preceding the march in 1963, though the film sets the stage with scenes in 1954 and a prelude in 1960. There’s also short flashbacks to Bayard’s experiences in 1942. So fairly straightforward costuming but designer Toni-Leslie James still did her homework. In an Essence interview, she said:
“We looked at a lot of research. We talked about a lot of character research. We talked about specific costumes like the core costumes, buttons, what they wore during the march, different hats, different banners, and different types of people he wanted to see at the March.”
Talking to Netflix, James further described her process:
“When we do clothing, it’s not fashion; we’re looking for photographs of everyday people living their everyday lives. Research the 1960s and you’ll have Dior, Balenciaga, Bill Blass. Well, I’m not looking for that. We’re looking for photographs of families — at a picnic, going to church, and everything else. We use all of that pictorial research to create all of the clothing that goes into the film.”
And she said of working with director George C. Wolfe:
“Working with George is about striving for a level of realness and authenticity. He’s like, No, that should be wrinkled; we need to knock this way down so they look like people. You don’t want background actors to take away from our principals, but you want them to totally enhance it. We’re doing 300 or 400 fittings a day, so then when we get everybody in a lineup, having that balance of color and print is so important to the authenticity.”
She used vintage clothing when possible, and at one store she found a couple dozen 1950s and 1960s suits that her team cut up, tailored, and copied. Also in the Netflix interview, James said:
“We basically copied the style of suit Rustin wore; it had to be a three-button suit with a center vent, no side vents. We found an incredible guy in Nyack who had an antique store, but in the back of his store were all of these vintage Hickey Freeman suits from the 1960s with the tags on them, never worn. So I think we bought about 10 or 12 suits from this gentleman. That was a costume designer’s dream. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
But his suits weren’t always worn as suits, she told Netflix:
“Bayard, behind the scenes, does not have to be that buttoned up. A lot of the photographs that you see with Bayard, the sleeves are rolled up, the tie is loose.”
James continued to Netflix talking about the casual looks for the film:
“There may be a couple of photographs where you see Martin Luther King in one of the marches or walking around the neighborhood, and he has on a cap and that sort of period Cuban, Havana shirt. We used [that look] because it was my one chance to show Martin really at home with his family. I mean, could you imagine him at home and he’s in a suit? I’ve seen those movies, okay? So I tried to make it not be that movie.”
The focus of the story is on the men, but I was happy to see civil rights activist Ella Baker show up in a few scenes with Bayard.
There’s quite a few young women working in key positions at the March HQ, and organizer Dr. Anna Hedgeman (who went on to co-found the National Organization for Women) pointed out the lack of female speakers at the march. This movie really packs it in, thoughtfully, and and not in a rushed way, which is impressive for a relatively short production.
Have you seen Rustin? Did you know about his work on the March on Washington?