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'Rustin' tells the story of the man who helped make the March on Washington possible

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With the words, I have a dream, at the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. cemented his place in history. But the man who gave him the platform for that speech, Bayard Rustin, has largely been forgotten by history. A new film aims to change that, and critic Bob Mondello says the biopic "Rustin" is at once rabble-rousing and just plain rousing.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Bayard Rustin is forever holding forth on passive resistance to people who don't want to hear him because school desegregation and lunch counter sit-ins are being countered by white supremacists and police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) The pacifist is opposed to using violence but must be prepared to receive it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're irrelevant.

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) It's Friday night. I've been called worse.

MONDELLO: He has indeed. Played flamboyantly by Colman Domingo with a gap-toothed grin, his face having been rearranged by a policeman's baton at a demonstration, Rustin is one of the movement's top organizers. But he's often dismissed by, say, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

CHRIS ROCK: (As Roy Wilkins) His attention-grabbing antics make him an easy target. We must not mention the unmentionable.

MONDELLO: That would be the fact that Rustin is gay and outspoken, which Wilkins, played by Chris Rock, uses to drive a wedge between him and his friend Martin Luther King Jr. Without King, notes a mutual pal, Rustin is a shark trapped in a shot glass. With him, they're unstoppable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (As Ella Baker) He saw the power that you and Martin had, and it threatened him. You go get your friend back.

MONDELLO: And because Rustin's had an idea, he does just that. The idea...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) We are going to put together the largest peaceful protest in the history of this nation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) How big?

MONDELLO: With musical underscoring from Branford Marsalis, director George C. Wolfe, who hails from the theater, makes the birth of the March on Washington pop and fizz so much you can almost hear a song coming on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Angelic troublemakers such as yourselves with ideas so bold, so inspiring.

MONDELLO: Still, the movement's elders are mostly not harmonizing with Rustin. Late in the game, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. shows up at an organizing meeting to try to knock him off the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Adam Clayton Powell Jr.) Your mere presence could derail the fight for racial justice in this country a good 10, 15 years.

MONDELLO: Rustin, ever the pragmatist, simply goes around the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) How many first aid stations have been secured?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Twenty-two, run by teams of mostly Negro medical practitioners.

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Water.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) There will be six water tanks, 1,500 gallons each, ensuring that the...

MONDELLO: And hundreds of latrines, 2,000 buses, 40 Freedom Trains, union-provided Freedom Flights, more than a thousand Black New York City policemen to keep order.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) And a chartered plane of celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Charlton Heston...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Moses.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) ...Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne...

MONDELLO: You're going to take this guy off the case?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) All of which has been achieved in seven weeks.

MONDELLO: Powell leaves furious as Wolfe weaves in other plot strands - a closeted Black pastor who has a crush on Rustin, the traumas visited on homosexuals generally, the timidity of the theoretically friendly Kennedy administration and the D.C. police chief who lets the master of logistics know on the eve of the march on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that he's been planning, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) For the first time since prohibition, every liquor store in the metropolitan area will be closed for the day. All elective surgeries have been canceled, and congressmen are telling their female staff to stay home.

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) And why is that? Is it because a number of people, specifically a number of men with skin the color of my own, will be in town?

MONDELLO: Domingo's Rustin lectures the chief just as he's previously lectured civil rights leaders up to and including the man who's about to tell the world that he has a dream. Rustin was standing right behind him when he delivered that speech, almost literally his right-hand man. And the film "Rustin" insists that he finally get his due by being upbeat, committed and theatrical, just like the man himself. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TO FREEDOM")

LENNY KRAVITZ: (Singing) We are here to make the dream true. And together, that's what we'll do.

SHAPIRO: The music you're hearing right now is the new Lenny Kravitz song from the end of "Rustin." Kravitz was told it needed to, quote, "deliver audiences from feeling to action, and it needed trombones." It's called "Road To Freedom," and it's out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TO FREEDOM")

KRAVITZ: (Singing) We're on the road to freedom until the war is won. We're on the road to freedom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.