There's at least one Civil Rights drama per awards season (or, at least, it feels that way), but thus far, none have told the story of Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), the architect of the 1963 March on Washington.
Produced by the Obamas and directed by George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Rustin follows its title character as he fights to organize the history-making march, all while wrestling with the open secret of his sexuality and the potential public scrutiny it brings.
Domingo, who has built an impressive résumé on stage and screen without ever truly breaking out, gives a tremendous performance as Bayard Rustin — a man unapologetic in his sexuality and vociferously committed to the movement. With other major projects set to release this season, including The Color Purple, Domingo could finally become the household name he deserves to be — and Rustin certainly helps those odds, as it should put him decisively into the Oscar race.
David Lee/Netflix Colman Domingo in 'Rustin'
He transforms into Rustin, complete with missing teeth, a result of an incident with police brutality, and a slight lisp. Rustin himself is an intriguing figure, the man who taught Martin Luther King Jr. about the practice of non-violent protest and yet is consistently more unpredictable than his famous friend and colleague.
Domingo infuses Rustin with a warmth and vibrancy that creates a performance of immense empathy. The heaps of charm and friendliness Domingo brings to the character make it easy to understand how Rustin rallied so many to his cause in spite of constant rumors about his personal life. His portrait of a man fighting for both his race and his sexuality feels incredibly personal and helps hammer home Rustin's commitment to true "justice for all."
David Lee/Netflix Audra McDonald and Colman Domingo in 'Rustin'
The film boasts a stacked ensemble including Audra McDonald as Ella Baker, Adrienne Warren as Claudia Taylor, and Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, but Domingo is the main event. Aml Ameen is a forgettable addition to the hefty list of cinematic Martin Luther King Jrs. Jeffrey Wright gets to ham it up almost too gleefully as villainous congressman, Adam Clayton Powell. The biggest misstep, however, is Chris Rock as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. The comedian is dreadfully miscast and despite his valiant attempt at "serious" acting, he is more amusing to watch than anything, merely for how out of place he feels.
Bayard Rustin has largely been excluded from the historical record, in part because of his sexuality. The film makes an admirable effort to examine the gap between Rustin's own self-acceptance and the conflict of his determination to not allow that fact to derail the movement to which he has dedicated his life.
All in all, though, Rustin is a paint-by-numbers biopic. Penned by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black — the latter of whom is an Oscar winner for his screenplay for Milk, about openly gay politician Harvey Milk — the movie swings between being an overstuffed historical fact sheet and barely toeing the line of sentimental inspiration. It's a pleasant enough look at a man's story that deserves its place in the historical record. But even with Rustin's frequent omission from the civil rights narrative, it fails to cover much new ground. The decision to recreate the most famous portions of the march, including Mahalia Jackson's (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) performance and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, is particularly perplexing. They're such familiar historical moments that it takes the viewer out of the action when confronted with this thin imitation, which only serves to weaken the film's overall impact.
David Lee/Netflix The ensemble of 'Rustin'
It's not really all that surprising that Rustin is so middle-of-the-road when you consider the Obamas' involvement, given their more centrist approach to politics at large. Barack Obama has a personal connection to the story, having posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013. But the bigger challenge is that Wolfe is such an inherently theatrical director that much of the action and many of the performances — besides Domingo's — feel overtly stagey.
The broader recognition of Rustin's efforts may be long overdue, but that doesn't mean a cinematic rendering of his life should feel as dated as our nation's own historical shortcomings. Grade: B
Rustin opens in select theaters on Nov. 3 and will be available to stream Nov. 17 on Netflix.
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