Director George C. Wolfe’s biopic and period piece Rustin opens with recreations of several iconic Civil Rights-era scenes: Tougaloo College students and faculty doused with condiments during a lunch counter sit-in protest; little Ruby Bridges with a security detail of U.S. marshals flanking her; stoic Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine surrounded by unbridled vitriol. Then, to the tune of light piano keys, the title card appears. Without knowing what’s to come, a viewer can surmise quite a bit from this revealing choice. Today we remember these people as ostracized figures, subject to indignities for the crime of merely asserting their right to exist. The titular civil rights activist Bayard Rustin is, in a sense, of their ilk. He’s a man who Wolfe presents with an almost martyr-esque intensity of presence, who repeatedly endures criticisms and cruelties with a smile and a courage tougher than steel. Rustin bills itself as the long overdue celebration of an undersung leader, but the film neither commits to the hagiographic veneration or unsparing character analysis one expects when a historical protagonist headlines a mononymous Academy Award hopeful. Rustin has more on its mind than solely one man, but likely would have been better served in honing its focus.
“Things need to change and change now.” We’re thrown into the thick of a conversation where Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) is turning down an offer to lead 5,000 Black people into Los Angeles to disrupt the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Out from the shadows steps Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), who efficiently persuades King to change his tune. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) aren’t fans of the extrainstitutional rabblerousing and threaten to go to the press exposing Rustin’s homosexuality. King cuts ties with Rustin as damage control, and the year shifts to 1963, as Rustin coasts through irrelevancy. After an argument and some good sex with his lover and former assistant Tom (Gus Halper), Rustin enlists help for his plan to stage the largest peaceful protest in the history of the United States: the March on Washington.
Perhaps pulling from Wolfe’s stage background, Rustin has quite the melodramatic flair and tempo. There’s a velocity to the dialogue, a snappiness to the scene transitions. The pace pulses with an urgency befitting the film’s subjects, both the cerebrally supercharged Rustin himself and the social crisis of racial discrimination. But this rapidity is a conceit that infrequently enlivens the story and more often just makes the proceedings feel rushed. Quieter, character-centric moments can get lost, sandwiched between the flashier, bang-bang scenes of planning and politicking. The jazzy score typically kicks in whenever work is getting done, especially when Rustin is orchestrating. When that score is used for an early dramatic sting or an overloading blare at the climax, while still effective, it squarely veers into gimmicky territory. Rustin affects a grandness to dress up its gaudiness, the actors inhabiting their roles with a gravitas that would more undeniably land as forced if not for our knowledge that we are watching momentous history be reenacted. Better suited for the big screen than the flat screen at home, the film obviously seeks to rile up a crowd, with witty comebacks, emphatic line deliveries, and triumphant flourishes that are par for the course for a crowd-pleaser. Strange, then, that the film received a measly two-week theatrical window before taking its rightful place in the Netflix library’s rank and file. Sure, sporadically compelling and not particularly challenging fare like Rustin is probably what gets butts in seats when the arena is the living room. But the heights the movie aims for feel further out of reach in such reduced circumstances.
Rustin is a Barack and Michele Obama-backed Higher Ground production, and it doesn’t take a very cynical viewer to see how the two, film and imprint, are a match made in heaven. Announcing their deal to provide content for the streaming giant back in 2018, Michelle Obama said, “Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others.” What better past tale to regale us with then than the story of how the March on Washington — the turbulent 1960s’ crowning achievement of nonviolent civil disobedience — came to be, which is really what the film is about. Yes, the film bears Bayard Rustin’s name, but it doesn’t tell his story so much as extract pathos and inspiration from his persecuted experience, holding him up as a model for responsible action while receiving kudos — as the film should — for elevating a marginalized civil rights champion. In other words, the film is safe, ensconced in a dignified, “they go low, we go high” brand of aspirational liberalism while tapping into an upstart, subversive energy necessary for a 2023 political flick to have enough sizzle for the kids to get on board. Lines in the script certainly aim at the youth, whether it’s Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) describing “the new generation” as restless and angry or Tom complaining about the SNCC, CORE and NAACP kids not getting things done because they’re fighting over slogans, songs, and agendas. Rustin is not without its own agenda, visible in the way it positions everybody — NAACP members, black cops, ambitious young people, white working-class union members, and white upper middle-class homeowners up in Westchester — as parts of the whole all needed for ultimate victory. Where Rustin falters is making this point discernably but not substantively, as the bulk of the runtime has to center Rustin in order to stick to the biopic playbook and offer a centering force for viewers. Yet Rustin himself feels lost in the shuffle, as so much needs to occur outside of him for this depiction of a collective movement not to succumb to any sort of “great man theory.” What we’re left with is an anodyne Trojan horse: a film billing itself as one thing, offering another thing it thematically prioritizes, but falling into a dull nonspecificity when it fails to properly deliver either.
What a shame, then, that the spellbinding Colman Domingo is tasked with carrying an at best solid film rather than starring in a true winner. Domingo melts into his character, embodying Rustin’s eccentricity, bristling intelligence, and ferocious zeal. The Emmy Award recipient sinks his teeth into this leading role, commanding it with such aplomb that his mere presence is enough to invigorate many a passable scene. Rustin is a textbook Oscar bait vehicle that only has any real chance of golden glory because Domingo’s dynamic portrayal is the engine. Watching the film for him alone is worthwhile enough, but his brilliance illuminates the reality that Domingo is better than and limited by the project itself. Tune in, if you wish, to watch, as Ella Baker aptly puts it, “a shark trapped in a damn shot glass.”
DIRECTOR: George C. Wolfe; CAST: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: November 3; STREAMING: November 17; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.