Rustin (2023)

Inspiring ‘Rustin’ thrives on Domingo’s portrayal

There’s no crueler irony than subjects of discrimination ostracizing a person worse off than they are in the hierarchy of social injustice. That, sadly, was the fate of Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man kept at a distance by civil rights leaders, despite his prominent role in attracting worldwide attention to the indignities of Jim Crow. Often referred to as the “invisible man” behind the tide-changing 1963 March on Washington, Netflix – in cooperation with producers Barack and Michelle Obama – seeks to correct that 60-year slight with “Rustin,” a fawning tribute that succeeds despite itself.

Stagy and abounding with clunky expository dialogue courtesy of writers Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar-winner for “Milk”), “Rustin” is nevertheless affecting in its well-meaning celebration of a colorful man of color who always put the prize ahead of his often self-destructive appetites. For that, director George C. Wolfe can thank Colman Domingo, utterly captivating in the title role.

The breakout star of Wolfe’s Oscar-nominated “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Domingo hits on the exact mix of heart and flamboyance in fleshing out a man who refused to take “no” for an answer… often to his own detriment. He holds little back in establishing a charismatic presence. It’s love at first sight, and it only intensifies as we tag along on Rustin’s journey from borderline nuisance to integral figure in what stands as the largest single-day protest the world has ever known. More than 250,000 people filled the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, and not one of them would have attended without the efforts of Rustin and his equally dedicated band of believers.

Domingo effortlessly demonstrates Rustin’s uncanny ability to command and lead, even when he’s being viciously shouted down by such icons as New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) and Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), head of the fledgling NAACP. They thought Rustin too radical, too off the rails and, yes, too gay. Even old pal MLK (Aml Ameen) has a breaking point when it comes Rustin’s grandiose ideas, including the March on Washington.

But Rustin never retreated, not even when he was banished to the sidelines after his proposed march on the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles was surreptitiously shot down, creating a temporary rift between MLK and him. I knew none of this prior to seeing the film and I’m sure I’m not alone. And that’s only a sampling of dozens of enlightening moments that shamefully have been omitted from the history books.

Where “Rustin” falters is in its insistence on telling instead of showing. We’re inundated with facts, dates and locations, but there’s little sentiment behind them. It’s as though Wolfe is so obsessed with historical accuracy, he neglects to motivate and inspire. He does provide a few glimpses into Rustin’s private life, including an affair with a married preacher (Johnny Ramey) that devastates his sometime lover, Tom (Gus Halper). But beyond illustrating the man’s promiscuousness, this does nothing to explain why Rustin’s commitment to causes didn’t carry over to his personal life.

The supporting characters are also lacking in depth and development. Wolfe rightly feels it necessary to display their names and positions on screen just so we know who’s who. Yet the top-notch cast, including an excellent CCH Pounder (“The Shield”) as civil rights activist Anna Hedgeman, gives it their all. Well, everyone except Rock, thoroughly miscast as Wilkins.

But then all pale alongside the Oscar-worthy Domingo. He creates a Rustin larger than life, but intimate enough to leave a lasting impression. Still, the character remains almost as enigmatic at the end as he was when the picture began. But at least we now know the name. It’s Rustin, and I’ll wager you won’t soon forget it.

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for some violence, sexual material, brief drug use, racial slurs, thematic material, language, smoking

Cast: Coleman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Audra McDonald and Glynn Turman

Director: George C. Wolfe

Writer: Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black

Runtime: 99 minutes

Where: On Netflix

Grade: B

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