The idea of Colman Domingo nabbing an Oscar nom isn’t unwelcome at all, and the vehicle that might earn him that accolade is Rustin (now on Netflix), a biopic of somewhat-unsung (but becoming less so) civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. The man was a staunch advocate of nonviolence, and instrumental in a number of mid-century movements ranging from the New York City school boycott to gay rights. But Rustin’s most famous action, dramatized in the movie, was organizing the March on Washington, the civil-rights protest which drew 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was as motivated as he was complicated, and Domingo, under the direction of George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, gamely strives to capture his spirit.
RUSTIN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: “I hear when King said ‘Get!’, you tucked your tail and swished away.” The comment stings Bayard Rustin (Domingo) a little. His attempt to organize a protest in Washington, D.C. in 1960 failed when Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) shifted his allyship from Rustin to NAACP honcho Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock). Ideologically, they were on the same page – they all agreed that the banning of segregation did little to curb racism in the Deep South, and Black people had to assert their rights with a major march. But King and Wilkins saw Rustin, an openly gay man and former member of the communist party, as a liability. They forced him out, squashing the idea, but it didn’t squash Rustin’s passion for it.
Of course it didn’t. Rustin isn’t the type to roll over and be squashed. Not at all. It’s 1963, and as he bides his time in a crummy office, working for a ban-the-bomb group, President Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, which gets tangled in political red tape. Maybe it’s time to revisit the march, Rustin asserts. It would let Black voices be heard. He envisions 100,000 people being bussed to D.C. and camping in tents for a two-day rally. It’d be huge. It’d be loud. It’d be nonviolent. It’ll happen two months from now, which is very, very soon. Again, his spearheading of the event rankles Wilkins, as well as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), who can’t abide by Rustin’s homosexuality. The same is not true for the crew Rustin assembles, who work the phones and smoke cigarettes, organizing transportation and raising money and recruiting swaths of people to attend the march as Rustin rouses labor unions and leaders and politicians to back him: A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), Cleve Robinson (Michael Potts) and young John “Good Trouble” Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) among them.
But what about King? He’s still a maybe for this soon-to-be-historical shindig, which really could use his legendary rhetoric. Rustin’s many rousing mini-speeches – they’re all mini-speeches when you know what’s coming at the end of the movie – and montages are intercut with hiss struggle to be a man who loves other men. His lover Tom (Gus Halper) wants deeper commitment, but Rustin’s eye wanders to Elias (Johnny Ramey), who’s not just closeted, but married. And a father. And a pastor. What’s the greater struggle – being Rustin the impassioned activist, or Rustin the gay man? Both come into play when segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond’s voice comes on the radio, calling Rustin a “poivoit,” which is how assholes pronounce the word “pervert.” But nothing would stop Rustin. Nothing.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Writing Rustin alongside Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black won on Oscar for penning Milk, the bio of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. And Ava DuVernay’s Selma dramatized King’s 1965 voting-rights march.
Performance Worth Watching: Let’s face it – we’re not watching anyone else here, because Domingo commands every scene.
Memorable Dialogue: Domingo delivers dozens of superbly intonated slogans-as-dialogue lines, e.g.: “Counting on the courts to eradicate racial inequity – THAT’S madness!” or “You call it trouble, I call it an opportunity!”
Sex and Skin: Nothing noteworthy.
Our Take: Just because people are united by an idea doesn’t mean they’re all pointed in the same direction. It takes a big personality to work through the squabbles and disagreements and get everyone on the same page, and that big – very big – personality is Rustin. And as Domingo portrays him, he’s a charisma explosion, prickly and confrontational, unconcerned with whether people like him, and unapologetically himself. Domingo delivers lines, be they comic or dramatic, like Muhammad Ali haymakers, and somehow, after 106 minutes of movie, hasn’t punched himself weary. He could go on for another hour or two, and we’d love every bit of it, gorging on his ebullient and singular charms.
And Rustin needs him. Black and Breece craft robust dialogue for Domingo to deliver, but struggle to piece together a coherent narrative, which Wolfe seems to struggle with. The story chops along gracelessly, leaning on conventional biopic flourishes (montages, flashbacks), never finding much dramatic traction in the Rustin-Tom-Elias love triangle, and failing to build, sustain or release tension, even when the big climactic sequence is a record-setting rally that’s a key point in U.S. history. Weird, how such a triumph of humanity is depicted with a nearly tossed-off sense of consequence. But the emphasis is on Rustin, and therefore Domingo, who lifts this noble, but ragged endeavor from melodramatic mediocrity to a true actor’s showcase. Now, let’s hope someone spins the rest of Rustin’s epic saga of a life into a miniseries.
Our Call: If the film’s goal is to raise the profile of Rustin – over being a tight, suspenseful drama – consider that met. Without the spot-on casting of Domingo, though, it might not be so memorable, so take that into consideration when you STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.