Synopsis: Activist Bayard Rustin faces racism and homophobia as he helps change the course of Civil Rights history by orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington.
Stars: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey
Director: George C. Wolfe
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: There is no doubt about it: more people need to know about activist Bayard Rustin and his role in the history of Civil Rights in America. Many of the names that get mentioned often are legitimate trailblazers. Still, Rustin’s is rarely spoken alongside them, or if it is, it is used as a sidebar tangent that factors in his personal life. As an out gay man at a time when just being one minority was tough enough, his homosexuality put him into a smaller box than the tiny one he was already being forced into. Ostracized by the men he was working alongside to affect positive change in this country, Rustin fought tooth and nail not just for justice but for the right to be who he was and to stand for democracy at the same time.
Unfortunately, in Rustin, a new film from Netflix that I screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the life of Civil Rights pioneer Bayard Rustin is brought to life via a biopic so textbook, you can almost hear director George C. Wolfe flipping the pages from one moment to the next. With a story credit to Julian Breece, most of the screenplay is surprisingly attributed to Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Black, who won his award for 2008’s Milk about human rights activist/congressman Harvey Milk, can’t replicate that film’s sincerity here. Missing is the passion Black brought to the table for his Milk biopic. What’s left is a just-the-facts effort that doesn’t expand into anything deeper when it could have been more nuanced in its sketch of a black gay man during a time of great unrest.
Set mostly in and around the time leading up to the historic March on Washington held in 1963, the film nimbly moves through the early history of the movement and Bayard’s involvement in landmark moments that helped further the Black political cause. While he was ultimately pushed to the side or left out of the conversation entirely because of his relationship with men, his renewed fire that came with planning the March on Washington may have started as a way to show his peers he could pull off the impossible while opening the eyes of the world, but it gradually turns into an effort that was bigger than himself.
As biopics that cross paths with pivotal moments in history go, there are appearances from key historical figures (all of whom make sure we know who they are by essentially looking at the camera and reading a short bio) and extended scenes with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, Till Death) who was at one time a close friend and political mentee of Rustin’s. Black’s screenplay eventually begins to go from one factoid to another in what could be described as a book report come to life. The one thread that is partially tweaked, Rustin’s longtime relationship with a white activist (Gus Halper, Ricki and the Flash) and his affair with a closeted NAACP preacher (Johnny Ramey), feels underdeveloped and, ironically, the one Wolfe is least comfortable staying with for any length of time.
Though arguably grounded by Colman Domingo’s (Candyman) larger-than-life performance (which comes out of the gate like a locomotive), you’ll keep waiting for Rustin to take a different approach in the telling. Yet it plods along, hampered by Wolfe’s bad casting choices in supporting roles (Chris Rock…oof) and its impassioned grandstanding, which often rings resoundingly false. In the theater world, Wolfe is a formidable director, shepherding unforgettable works by new playwrights and introducing audiences to artists doing their most vital work. On film, though, he’s been largely a bust…and I’m including 2020’s too-stagey Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in that list. Rustin is yet another indication that he’s a theatrical director with a style that doesn’t translate to film.
In a small preview of what’s to come next year, I know that Domingo is so much better in Sing Sing (which I also saw at TIFF – it’s terrific), but he will likely get his first Oscar nom for this. Domingo is an actor just waiting to be recognized by an awards body, so I’m all for a spotlight being shone on him (he may even be nominated twice if he’s as good in December’s The Color Purple as I think he’ll be). Still, I wish that he was in a movie that matched his talent. Far and away the best thing about Rustin is the Lenny Kravitz song playing over the closing credits. That’s an Oscar campaign I could get passionate over.