'Rustin': Colman Domingo Shines in Otherwise Average Biopic
When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, most people likely think of important figures such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, Jr. These three are just a few of the major faces of the movement, and the work they did to fight for racial equality cemented their place in history. But as is the case with anything revolutionary, there are some people whose hard work goes largely unnoticed. Bayard Rustin is one of these people, as he is responsible for much of the planning and organization that went into the 1963 March on Washington. He was an outspoken activist for equal rights, and was unapologetic about his identity as both a black man and a gay man. He did so much to fight for equality during his life, and played such a major role in the Civil Rights Movement, yet he is not a name that most people are familiar with. With how inspirational and significant his story is, it makes perfect sense that a biopic would be made about his life. With an all-star cast and acclaimed director George C. Wolfe at the helm, Rustin seems extremely promising at first glance. But for a film about someone as bold and fearless as Bayard Rustin, it plays things awfully safe, and is a bit too unfocused and narratively disjointed to have the impact it wants to have.
Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) is an activist, fighting tirelessly for racial equality. When he has an idea to have a peaceful march for Civil Rights in Washington D.C., he springs into action, working together with A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and several others to make it happen. However, the road to make this idea a reality isn't easy, as Rustin faces pushback from leaders, both white and black, and faces discrimination based on both his race and sexuality. However, Rustin's unyielding spirit helps him stand up to any obstacle put in front of him, and he does everything he can to make sure the March on Washington goes according to plan.
There's no denying that the actual Bayard Rustin is a fascinating and highly significant figure, and that his story deserves to be told. That said, the film struggles to bring it to life, primarily on the script level. It feels torn between being a full-on biopic on Rustin that digs deep into his life and accomplishments, and a film solely about the March on Washington itself. The way it goes about each of these is perfectly okay, but they do not connect as well as they should. The contrast between the two is very strange, as there is a lot of overlap, but its as if the more Rustin-centric moments are from a more daring film, while the rest feels rather standard and heavy-handed. I can't help but feel that there was some disconnect between screenwriters Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, or that there may have been some type of pushback along the way. This is evident in the film's politics, which skirt how progressive and somewhat radical the actual Rustin was. It's as if the film is trying to be as inoffensive as possible so it can appeal to a wider audience. I can understand why it goes this route, as it wants to reach as many viewers as possible, but it comes at the cost of dumbing down the events it depicts and coming across as little more than your average biopic. It does have moments that go somewhat in-depth, both in terms of Rustin's life and the process of making the March happen, but it is mostly surface level, and disappointing given how bland it feels.
I also can't help but be disappointed in George C. Wolfe's direction, as it feels like a major step down from his previous feature, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Wolfe is a great director, especially when it comes to stage productions, but it feels like he is holding back here. His direction is pretty standard, and he doesn't take too many risks from a stylistic point of view. Wolfe at least gets some great performances out of the cast, which is a saving grace of the film. Aside from that, the film feels rather pedestrian, and Wolfe is doing a journeyman's work at best. He does do a solid job on the more Rustin-centric scenes that dig into his personal life and his activism, as these moments do play to his strengths. But the film as a whole feels a bit lacking, and had me wishing Wolfe would have taken some chances as opposed to taking a more awards-friendly route.
The filmmaking beyond that is a bit lacking as well, and is rather frustrating at times. Some scenes look rather cheap, and are so glossy looking that it distracts from what is going on onscreen. The camerawork is mostly fine, but it uses zooms in a way that feels unnecessary and kind of obnoxious given the context they are used in. I am all for cinematographers getting creative when it comes to how the camera moves, but the creativity here doesn't do much for it, and frankly took me out of it at times. The editing isn't half bad at least, and the score from Branford Marsalis is quite good as well. I really wish that the film would have stepped it up just a little in terms of the overall look of the film, but overzealous camera movements aside, it is serviceable at the very least.
The biggest takeaway for me, and what will likely be the takeaway for many viewers, is Colman Domingo's transformative performance as Bayard Rustin himself. It is a bit jarring at first, given how he pops off the screen from the moment he first appears, capturing Rustin's almost larger-than-life persona with precise detail, but as soon as I settled into what Domingo is doing here, I was very impressed by his performance. It is a capital-A acting performance, and you could write it off as a bit Oscar-baity given the film's propensity to have Rustin seemingly speak in monologues and that he is playing a real person. But I felt that Domingo's portrayal has enough honesty and commitment to it that it becomes something more than just an actor taking on a buzzy role. Domingo has long been one of my favorite actors, and this role shows just how talented he is on a major scale. He nails Rustin's distinct voice and mannerisms in a way that avoids feeling like an impression, while also nailing his humanity and making the quieter moments shine just as much as the bigger ones. It is a strong performance from Domingo that will hopefully help even more people take notice of how incredible of an actor he is, and one of the better biopic performances I've seen in recent memory.
The supporting cast is also quite good, and it helps that it is made up of some of our finest living actors. I especially loved Glynn Turman's performance as A. Philip Randolph, as he makes a great foil for the more showy work that Domingo delivers. Turman is an incredible character actor, and he is so great at inhabiting each role he takes on. As Randolph, he is playing a more serious, straight-laced character, but he is so compelling due to his screen presence alone. The scenes where he and Rustin are working on the March are some of the best moments of the film, thanks largely in part to Turman and Domingo's complementing performances. I also enjoyed Michael Potts's turn as Cleve Robinson, as he has such a strong energy and presence that I couldn't help but be drawn to him. The remainder of the supporting cast, namely Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Audra McDonald, and Jeffrey Wright are all quite excellent, and help carry the film quite beautifully.
Rustin is a film that I am rather torn on, as I am glad that someone like Bayard Rustin is getting their due, and that more people will know who he is as a result, but the film itself is kind of sub-par and plays it too safe. Colman Domingo's performance is fantastic, and undeniably the best aspect of the film, but the film around him and his fellow castmates just left me wanting more. It rushes through everything and is a bit too slight to really land the way that George C. Wolfe and company want it to. I will say that it at least made me want to learn more about the real Bayard Rustin, and I hope that others who watch this film feel the same way. Rustin is such a fascinating figure in the Civil Rights Movement, and I just wish this film did a little more to honor him and his legacy beyond doing the bare minimum. I'm glad that Rustin's story is finally being told on a major level, but I wish that it would have come together better than it does in this film.