Rustin Review | Taking History Personally

by Andrew Parker

Bolstered by an outstanding, memorable leading performance from Colman Domingo, the biopic Rustin gives a prominent civil rights activist their proper due. A poignant and effective look at a point where the fight for equal racial and sexual rights uneasily intersected, Rustin follows a basic biopic template, but applies it to a story that hasn’t been told to death countless times before. It’s like   watching a puzzle being completed with a few missing pieces falling into place; like a small, but noticeable hole in history is somehow being repaired.

Bayard Rustin (Domingo) was a major player in the fight for black equality in the 1950s and 60s, often working closely with the revered Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen). But despite his passion, drive, unflappable work ethic, and outspoken nature, many civil rights organizations either shunned or kept Rustin at a distance because he was also an openly gay man. While Rustin had more than his fair share of supporters within the civil rights community, he also had notable, powerful detractors in the likes of NAACP head Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and black congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright). Amid all the controversy surrounding his personal life and regardless of the roadblocks placed in his path, an undeterred Rustin and his team of allies spearheaded the campaign to mount a massive demonstration of civil activism at the U.S. capitol.

The event that Bayard Rustin helped to make a reality – the March on Washington – is an immeasurably historic event, best remembered for MLK’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. The sheer size, scope, and impact of the event can’t be understated, and yet, the event’s organizers – Rustin and A Philip Randolph (played in the film by Glynn Turman) – are often unmentioned when talking about it. Granted, the waves of black people and their supporters coming from all over the country to create one of the biggest protests in world history and one of the grandest speeches of all time naturally overshadows the work of Rustin, but director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and writers Julian Breece (When They See Us) and Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) look at the moments leading up to it from a profound, granular perspective.

So much of the success of Wolfe’s film falls on the shoulders of Domingo, who turns in a thoroughly lived in performance. It’s the type of performance that would feel like a showy impersonation in the hands of an actor simply playing the history of a person, but the material and Domingo’s performance is keen enough to understand the little things that make Rustin tick. There are fine lines between Rustin’s ability to be social and his pervasive, underlying sense of anxiety. He wants to be seen, but is often ignored because he’s trying to stay true to himself, and he refuses to code switch unless absolutely forced into doing so in a bid to accomplish his goals. When so many attacks against him are so deeply personal in nature and rooted in homophobia, it’s effortless for Domingo to peel back those emotional layers and show how these perceptions coloured the work he performed and the ways he interacted with others. Domingo – sans a couple of teeth that Rustin had knocked out by some cops during a protest in the 1940s – creates a whole set of ticks and facial expressions that suit the personality of someone who pushes back, but constantly gets pressed upon in return. Domingo’s work is so magnetizing and refined that it’s easy to forget that Rustin is rarely deviating from an established template for this sort of film.

But even the template is put to good use in Rustin, with the film’s requisite moments of historical exposition dumps crackling with a sense of energy and natural enthusiasm that lesser biopics stumble over. Many of these moments of personal and historical context are gently folded into conversations with Rustin’s partners, his longterm and devoted white partner, Tom (Gus Halper), and his new black crush, Elias (Johnny Ramey). Breece and Black’s script handle history not as signposts with additional spotlights placed upon them, but as unforced exchanges of personal information. The history is important, but Wolfe and the writers understand that the personal impact of those milestones is what will make Rustin resonate louder than a simplistic remounting of events.

That does lead, however, to a film that leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the plethora of fascinating figures left around the periphery of Rustin’s advocacy, many of whom are played by performers making noteworthy impressions. Rock’s flip-flopping, image conscious leader definitely has more going on than the film allows to be shown. Wright gets to play the closest thing the film has to an outright villain, as a tough talking, arrogant politician who thinks he has mastered what it means to be a successful black man in America. CCH Pounder gets a really great scene where her historical counterpart, Dr. Anna Hedgeman, takes Rustin and the event organizers to task for not including the voices of female leaders as part of the protest, and it leaves the viewer wanting to know much more about her than they’re given. Halper plays Rustin’s often put upon sounding board and personal assistant, but also shows the character’s boundless devotion and frustration in such aching detail that it could almost sustain an entire film simply based on the duo’s relationship. The focus is rightfully on Rustin, and Wolfe makes a cautious decision to keep everything moving along at a brisk pace, but the film’s ambition still hints to a few puzzle pieces being out of place.

Just like the template used for the overall outline of the script’s trajectory, the look of Rustin is basic, but assured and compelling, making the absolute most of the resources at the filmmakers’ disposal. But something like Rustin doesn’t need to be flashy to succeed. It only needs to be exceptionally performed, forthright in tone, and on the right side of history. Wolfe, his team, and his cast accomplish the task with grace and fire, turning what could’ve only paid lip service to a small portion of a larger historical picture into a vibrant and engaging dramatic profile of a figurehead worthy of a grander cinematic statement than they’ve been afforded in the past.

Rustin opens in select theatres, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, November 3, 2023. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting November 17.

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