Biographical dramas, biopics, are the coal that drives the engine of awards season. It can be a bit of a drag watching so many who fail to find new ways to present the information of a subject’s life, because they ALL center on fascinating, worthy people at their core. Netflix’s Rustin is slightly different, though. While the presentation by director George C. Wolfe is indeed very by-the-book, its subject is someone who most people have never heard of even as his chief accomplishment, the March On Washington, is something we all know as pivotal to the civil rights movement.
Rustin shares something else in common with other biopics, and that’s an incredible lead performance. Colman Domingo enters the Oscar season race for his portrayal of Bayard Rustin, a man whose efforts have largely been erased from history. We all know the 1963 March On Washington and the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.(Aml Ameen), a close personal friend of Rustin’s, but without Rustin’s leadership, coordination, and political savvy it might never have gotten off the ground.
In 1960, Rustin is a major player in the civil rights movement, working closely with the NAACP (led by Roy Wilkins, oddly played by Chris Rock) and his good friend MLK. Rustin’s plan for a large-scale display of civil disobedience is shelved by a threat to reveal his homosexuality to the world. Rustin gambles it’ll all work out; it doesn’t, however, and he’s basically removed from the movement, feeling betrayed by MLK who did nothing to support him.
Set largely in 1963, the year of the March, Rustin follows a strict, formulaic approach. It’s easy to see why, as Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is meant to inform an audience who have likely never heard of Bayard Rustin before. They don’t know his struggle as a gay Black man, fighting for civil rights that he will only be able to see the benefits from in one respect, but not another. And yet Rustin couldn’t sit back and watch as the horrific perpetrated against Black people continued. He decided to reignite his plan for the March with or without the help of the NAACP. However, he would absolutely need to reconnect with his old friend MLK to pull off the 100,000-person, two-day event meant to force change in Washington.
Wolfe is a playwright at heart, and his film projects can feel a bit stagey and static. Rustin is no different, despite Branford Marsalis’ jazzy score. A clunky screenplay full of oddly-placed monologues and emotional shortcuts do Domingo few favors, and yet the actor prevails tremendously. The film is at its strongest when Domingo is in the center of the action, capturing Rustin’s natural charm and charisma that disarms those who might stand opposed to him, otherwise. Rustin is left to navigate the hypocrisy of civil rights leaders and their homophobia. And while a love triangle between Rustin, a staffer, and a fellow group leader is handled with kid gloves, it is nonetheless fascinating to watch Rustin negotiate his queerness in private and in public.
Rustin is always his whole, true self, which rubs a lot of people the wrong way. If he had chosen to stay quiet and closeted, Rustin’s goals would’ve been achieved much earlier, but his story would be less remarkable. It’s that he refused to hide his homosexuality and still was able to overcome the bigotry to achieve something earth-shattering that is so moving about his story. Rustin might not be the extraordinary work that Bayard Rustin truly deserves. It shows flashes of greatness here and there, but they never coalesce into a consistent whole. The one consistently great aspect to Rustin is Domingo, with a towering performance that makes you believe this one man could pull off such a herculean effort. It also makes you wonder the strings that had to be pulled to keep such a pioneering figure out of the history books.
Rustin opens in select theaters on November 3rd, followed by Netflix streaming on November 17th.