‘Rustin’ Review: Colman Domingo’s Searing Performance Rises Above a Middling Film

Telluride 2023: George C. Wolfe’s flat visuals leave a lot to be desired despite the powerful subject matter

An early morning screening of “Rustin” started on a rousing note over the weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. With a surprise recorded message, the 44th U.S. President Barack Obama greeted the audience with a personal speech, with his and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions having produced the historical biopic about the key figure of a momentous slice of American Civil Rights history. Obama saluted Bayard Rustin, the fearless architect of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, who “recognized injustice and stood up against it.”

Playwright and filmmaker George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” is an ideologically stirring celebration of that recognition and the fight which followed leading to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s also a gracious acknowledgment of the work, determination and resilience grassroots activism takes to hit the ground running with vision and fire in the belly, as well as the joys of making a real contribution towards the kind of just world everyone deserves to live in.

But it’s primarily an overdue and loving tribute to the titular hero Rustin Bayard, a gay, black activist and organizer, unapologetic about his beliefs and identity in an era that accepted or included neither. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is what we immediately think of when we hear the words, “The March on Washington,” but the man who cleared the way and enabled that speech rarely gets a mention…until now.

In that regard, “Rustin” is undeniably imperative work, significant just by the virtue of existing and bringing a social justice hero out of the shadows. That significance is met and vibrantly exceeded by Colman Domingo’s searing performance in the title role: fiery, angry, joyous, authentic, vulnerable and infinitely larger-than-life, his Rustin navigates the ebbs and flows of peaceful, organized activism.

Domingo never over-plays any of Rustin’s signature qualities—among them are his disarming smile and missing tooth, which a black-and-white flashback provides the background on. Rustin has always been a rebel and agitator who challenged authority—taking a seat on a bus during a protest years ago where he gets savagely beaten by racist cops.

Sadly, Wolfe’s direction and the film’s overall visual palette fall flat when compared to Domingo’s mesmerizing performance as a tireless leader. Domingo’s effervescence often makes the film’s one-note appearance all the more noticeable. Wolfe steers the action forward fluidly (if a tad unimaginatively) and his editor Andrew Mondshein binds the scripts numerous moving pieces together with coherence.

But Tobias A. Schliessler’s uniform lensing does little towards giving the narrative the depth and texture it deserves. As was also the case with Wolfe’s better looking but still lifeless “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (also starring Domingo), there is a stage-y character to “Rustin”—less a cinematic identity and more clockwork functionality. Also awkward are the parts of the production design where Pittsburgh stands in for New York. While passable in some scenes, it always feels noticeably false on the whole.

But Domingo rises above the film’s forgettable façade in an unforgettable performance, at ease in his character’s skin and the chirpily talky script by Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) that manages to keep several threads afloat. While there are some awkward instances in the story that a lot of historical dramas fall victim to—such as characters speaking like they already know the future historic consequences of their present-day actions—the film still goes down easy at every turn.

Early on, we meet key leaders of the movement, including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Rustin’s friend Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen, in an intensely captivating performance). We get a swift and detailed look at the disloyalties at play, with the NAACP standing in the way of Rustin’s ideas for peaceful protests. Those machinations eventually shake up his friendship with King, which only gets restored when Bayard’s friend Ella (a scene-stealing Audra McDonald) engages in a rousing heart-to-heart with Bayard. She knows that Rustin and King would be unstoppable together. And she calls it as she sees it.

We meet another friend of Rustin—Rachelle, played by Lilli Kay—who becomes one of the essential participants of a group of young activists Bayard later organizes, with a focus on big ideas that stress peaceful protest, a method he proudly points to as being inspired by Gandhi every chance he gets. There are also a pair of romantic plot-lines the script does its best to navigate alongside the political happenings. One of them is with Bayard’s lover Tom (Gus Halper). The other is Elias (Johnny Ramey), a married preacher Bayard gets involved with. To its credit, “Rustin” doesn’t gloss over the sexuality of these relationships—in that, we see the passion, ache and sexual desire the three men experience across eloquent intimacy scenes.

Played beautifully by CCH Pounder, civil rights leader and politician Anna Arnold Hedgman brings a lot of verve to the final act of “Rustin,” owning her scene where she criticizes the lack of women speakers at the planned march. In perhaps the film’s best directed sequence, Domingo surpasses every miraculous thing he’s already done in “Rustin” as Bayard tries to keep his focus on the kind of sandwich they should have at the march for the attendees while those who play dirty go out to the press with his sexual orientation and related conviction, questioning whether he is the right person to lead such a significant movement. It’s tear-jerking stuff when his friend MLK comes to his defense on national television.

When the march itself finally arrives, you naturally want it to be a big event. But “Rustin” inexplicably rushes through what we’ve all been waiting for. Still, we want to experience the fruits of Bayard’s hard-work longer, but “Rustin” ends it all too abruptly in an inexplicable decision.

Despite those missteps and the dullness of its visuals, “Rustin” still packs a punch with its bouncy honoring of the kind of activism that today’s world could use more of: take one step at a time, go as far as the few bucks in your pocket can take you and compromise when necessary if the results you’re seeking are at urgent stake (an especially vital reminder for today’s political leaders).

That can-do spirit is aided by Branford Marsalis’ jazzy beats—at times, as great an asset to “Rustin” as Domingo’s performance—keeping the focus on the energizing bliss of teamwork and the power of well-organized collaboration. It’s far from a perfect movie, but hopefully one that will lead the way to further gratitude to a peerless American hero.

Rustin” will open in select theaters on Nov. 3 and will be released on Netflix on Nov. 17.