Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), was a civil rights activist who, in 1963, helped put together the largest peaceful protests in American history. George C. Wolfe’s important biopic, “Rustin”, occasionally sidesteps the screenplay’s limitations, allowing Domingo to dig into his portrayal and craft a dynamic performance.
Though plagued by prejudice and bigotry, Bayard Rustin had a full life. He was dear friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and was instrumental in ensuring the reverend doctor stayed at the forefront of the civil rights movement. As a gay Black man who once led a communist coalition, Rustin found himself an outcast, but sought to overcome the hate and help others in the struggle find a safe path to acceptance. Domingo resists the cliche of making his character into a saint; the trap of so many biopics. There is great energy beaming from his performance that captures the spirit (and flaws) of the man without sermonizing. As Rustin, the actor is on complete fire and I hope the academy will remember him come Oscar voting month.
“Rustin” the film doesn’t always hold up to Domingo’s performance. While certainly a good and entertaining piece, Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay tries too hard to sell its positivity, to the point of being excessively sentimental. With the powerful human drama that surrounds the events of Bayard Rustin’s life, Breece and Black seem to aim their script at the “feel good” audiences. The fight for Civil Rights, the inner politics of the NAACP, and the struggle of being Black and Gay in early 1960s America shouldn’t feel so perky.
Wolfe’s film captures two defining and parallel moments of the man’s life; his dedication to seeing the March on Washington become a reality and his struggle to exist as a gay Black man with a White lover (Johnny Ramey). Both arcs represent the constant battles Bayard Rustin had to fight every day. Both stories are interesting, but director Wolfe isn’t always on top of keeping the narrative drive flowing smoothly. Many individual moments work well (mostly thanks to Domingo) despite uneven editing. Some transitions feel choppy while others scenes seem thrown together. Editor Andrew Mondshein fails to achieve a cohesive framework and hurts the picture’s overall impact.
Domingo is backed up by a fairly strong cast. Chris Rock is solid (if not miscast) as Rustin’s main nemesis, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. Jeffery Wright captures the homophobic viciousness of Adam Clayton Powell with precision and CCH Pounder is quite moving as civil rights leader Anna Hedgeman.
The great Glynn Truman (as A. Phillip Randolph) is as powerful as Domingo, portraying a man who fails to kowtow to the political infighting when organizing a peaceful protest should be the matter at hand. As always, Truman brings a studied gravitas to his every moment on screen and is a pleasure to watch.
The young actors playing Rustin’s staff are collectively good and give weight to his influence and ability to inspire. It is in Aml Ameen’s portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. where the acting takes a stumble. Ameen barely registers as the civil rights legend. The actor’s performance is too dry and detached from the real man. By the time we get to the recreation of MLK’s historical speech, Ameen doesn’t have the fire to pull it off, causing the moment to become distastefully lackluster.
Once Rustin achieves his goal of getting the March up and running, the film finds a spark. Marred only by Wolfe’s strange decision to include some badly executed green screen of the Lincoln Memorial, watching this man (who was almost beaten down by bureaucracy and homophobia) make it all happen is undeniably entertaining. The inconstant screenplay cannot diminish the message of hope.
“Rustin” is a film that somewhat works, but too often veers towards the banal. Sporadically inspiring and informative, it is Coleman Domingo who grounds the picture and captivates the viewer with his electrifying, complex, and career-best work.
Written by Julian Breece & Dustin Lance Black
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Coleman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Chris rock, CCH Pounder, Aml Ameen
PG-13, 106 Minutes, Higher Ground Productions/Netflix