It’s hard to mince words when it comes to Rustin, the George C. Wolfe-directed historical drama about openly gay Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. It’s a terrible, scattered, unpleasant movie in nearly every way except one: Colman Domingo’s committed, energetic, downright thrilling work as the movie’s subject, which elevates it to the point of “sort of watchable.”
Not since the late Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has there been such an enormous chasm between the quality of a film and its standout performance. In fact, Rustin has a fair amount in common with that Oscar-nominated 2011 movie about September 11, from its overly saccharine tone to its star-studded supporting cast, to its attempts to engender sympathy using recognizable American iconography. Both productions also fit comfortably in the category frequently dubbed “Oscar bait,” the kind of mid-budget Hollywood drama that largely exists to garner year-end awards, which might give it a boost at the box office (or in Rustin‘s case, a few more Netflix subscriptions).
But Extremely Loud is, at the very least, competently assembled. Wolfe’s movie doesn’t even have that much going for it. Rustin has seams that show at every turn, a head-scratching dramatic structure, and an inability to capture the sheer scale of the event around which it’s built: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It tries to play familiar biopic tunes, but every note is off-key.
What is Rustin about?
Credit: Parrish Lewis / Netflix
The March on Washington was, at the time, the largest single-city demonstration in U.S. history, attended by nearly 300,000 people. You know the event even if you think you don’t: It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” sermon from the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. That speech is rightly remembered as a watershed moment for Black Civil Rights, but Bayard isn’t frequently credited as the event’s architect, let alone as someone with arguably as big a hand in the movement as Dr. King himself had.
Rustin seeks to course-correct that historical status quo, tracing Bayard’s dynamics with King (as played by Aml Ameen) and several fellow activists in the years and months leading up to the march. Written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground, the film illuminates a series of events frequently obscured in classrooms and the public consciousness, from Bayard’s personal relationships to his professional rivals — like NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) — who painted targets on his back for various reasons, including sexuality and his political outspokenness.
It’s a positive that Rustin is likely to bring these factoids to the fore, shining a light on an oft-ignored pocket of Black queer history. But this alone could have just as easily been achieved by sharing the link to Bayard’s Wikipedia page. That the film is unable to do much else borders on tragedy, given the powerful material and talented cast at its disposal.
The same can unfortunately be said of Wolfe’s previous effort, the star-studded Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which also featured an under-exposed queer Black icon: blues artist Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Together, Ma Rainey and Rustin expose an inability to capture and reframe the power of existing history, let alone create new iconography through a cinematic lens.
Rustin‘s filmmaking is bland, sloppy, and empty.
Too much dead air fills Wolfe’s scene construction in Rustin. There’s little energy to the images he creates, with only a small handful of exceptions. The movie’s opening montage recreates iconic photos and paintings from the Civil Rights era, like Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, which depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being chaperoned to a newly desegregated elementary school by U.S. marshals, and the famous photos and videos of Elizabeth Eckford being jeered upon entering her high school as one of its first Black students. With these blueprints firmly in place, etched in our collective memory, Wolfe copies them without much trouble.
However, few moments from there on out have the same vitality. A stiltedness runs through each conversation. The edit only seems to hold long enough for characters to complete their lines, with little breathing room for emotional effects to land. The camera only moves in meaningful ways when Domingo is on-screen, which on one hand paints him as the energetic center of history itself, but on the other, makes every shot he isn’t in feel like a taped rehearsal. Sometimes the camera charges towards him, resulting in fascinating bursts of energy that Domingo returns in kind with his theatrical enunciations and physicality. But even this flourish quickly fades, as the movie settles into a rote visual and narrative rhythm.
The fact that several group scenes are poorly composited against fake-looking backdrops is certainly distracting, but it’s hardly a death knell compared to the film’s more pressing dramatic problems. Few characters but Bayard seem to have their own internal worlds or their own lives and personalities outside of his orbit. The exceptions to this include his dedicated assistant and occasional romantic interest Tom (Gus Halper), and a suave but conflicted married man with whom he starts a secret love affair, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey). But since nearly every frame outside the confines of Bayard’s home is filled with dozens of other organizers, comprising a multi-ethnic coalition standing in solidarity, this proves to be a bit of a problem. Outside of his apartment — which plays host to a handful of intimate moments — things happen in Rustin simply because they happened in real life. They’re presented here with little sense of causality stemming from character decisions.
Take, for instance, when political activist Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) raises an objection to the march’s lack of female speakers, quite late into the 106-minute runtime. Her complaint seems to emanate from nowhere in particular, since neither Hedgeman’s perspective nor the shape of the march’s lineup had ever entered the movie’s purview until this moment. Then, just as quickly as the issue arises, it is just as quickly resolved, without much on-screen discussion, let alone any revelations about the march, its formation, or the limitations of Bayard’s perspective.
The film pays little heed to the unfolding drama of putting such an enormous event together with so many cooks in the kitchen. What’s more, when the march does finally come around, the movie builds to a visual and emotional crescendo that never actually arrives. Rustin is no Selma; in fact, it’s the anti-Selma. Where Ava DuVernay’s King biopic similarly built its story around a single event (the Selma to Montgomery march), it unfurled its plot and political mechanics through rigorous dramatic inquiry into its characters. In Rustin, the March on Washington unfolds like a foregone conclusion, from which pre-ordained character moments trickle out, landing without impact.
By the end, not only is the enormousness and historical weight of the march entirely glossed over — its size and scale are never fully seen, its emotional weight never felt — but Bayard’s story seems to peter out in this moment too. His tale of balancing his political and personal lives finds little resolution by the time Rustin reaches its sudden ending. It’s as though he were a mere pawn to a moment in time, which is the very notion the film sets out to subvert. Instead, its narrative structure ends up sweeping him back under the rug of history. In which case, it’s a good thing Domingo is as magnetic as he is, because without him, nothing about the movie would stick in one’s memory.
Colman Domingo delivers a performance for the ages.
Credit: David Lee / Netflix
Two entwined elements keep Rustin from falling apart completely: that it plays out like a political procedural, and that each procedure is anchored by Domingo’s presence. The former wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing without the latter.
With a wide, enticing grin made up of cracked teeth (courtesy of police batons), Bayard displays relentless wit, and has a tongue sharp enough to cut anyone down in half with his pointed punchlines. (When a young man at a party tries to lure him into a fight by calling him “irrelevant,” he diffuses the argument by responding: “It’s Friday night, I’ve been called worse.”) Domingo’s magnetism is scientific, two-fold, precise. He repels every other Type A personality in the room, or anyone who might butt heads with him, while attracting those taken in by his specific brand of uncompromising pontification. He’s like Martin Luther King Jr., but without the sheen and refinement, making him oodles of fun to watch.
But what really separates Domingo’s performance is the way he fashions all these external idiosyncrasies into a kind of armor, the cracks in which he flashes the camera’s way on occasion. As a man in his fifties, Bayard is far beyond caring what other people think of him, for better or worse; this infects his personal relationships too. But you can also trace, through Domingo’s expressions, and his delivery of even the most jovial lines, the painful journey it took to get him to this unapologetic place.
When the political forces around him finally close in, weaponizing his personal life against him, he reaches an emotional precipice that forces him to decide just how much he wants to include other people in his relentless pursuit of justice. It’s a delicate dramatic conundrum, one that Domingo navigates in heart-wrenching fashion, but it’s also sandwiched by scenes and shots that fail to accentuate this dilemma. Lighting, pacing, blocking — the tools that might help Bayard’s journey radiate outward, into a tangible cinematic fabric that’s more felt than merely observed — all fall by the wayside, until each scene becomes an inert and haphazard mess that skips from close-up to close-up, none of which are particularly intriguing except for Domingo’s.
Domingo shines so brightly that it’s unfair, considering how dull everything around him ends up being. It makes his performance look more radiant and accomplished by comparison, though it also ends up feeling like a major injustice that no other element of Rustin rises to a level anywhere comparable to his. He’s an island unto himself — an unfortunate irony, since Bayard’s story is all about people coming together.
Rustin was reviewed out of NewFest. It is currently in select theaters and will premiere on Netflix Nov. 17.