Rustin (TIFF) Review

Colman Domingo is terrific in the fact based account of activists Bayard Rustin’s attempt to organize the March on Washington.

PLOT: The true story of civil rights icon Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), who never got his due as one of the key figures behind the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

REVIEW: Bayard Rustin is a name that, until recently, wasn’t uttered with the same reverence afforded to his fellow giants of the civil rights movement. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who’s also one of the producers of this reverent biopic, which aims to make Rustin’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement more widely known.

Indeed, Rustin was an outlier in the party. As an openly gay man, he was the subject of rumours and innuendoes, making his role in the movement more behind the scenes, although his powers of persuasion and genius at organization proved invaluable. Gregory C. Wolfe’s film should be required viewing for anyone interested in that period, even if its somewhat dry form doesn’t quite match up with the fire of the performance given by Colman Domingo in the lead.

Domingo is another one of those guys who just recently got his due and is among the best character actors in the business. He finally gets his leading man moment in a role he was born to play. His Rustin is an urbane, sophisticated advocate of non-violent resistance but is also shown to be someone whose sexual preference made him the target of prejudice, even within the movement.

Wolfe’s film focuses on one specific time in Rustin’s life – the years between his ouster from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the eventual March on Washington. The movie does a good job depicting the inner turmoil and politics of the Civil Rights Movement, with Rustin butting heads with older NAACP establishment types like Chris Rock’s Roy Wilkins and Jeffrey Wright’s Adam Clayton Powell. We see Rustin and the wedge between him and Aml Ameen’s Martin Luther King, with Rustin spending several years ousted from the movement, only to return with the support of Glynn Turman’s A. Philip Randolph.

The film is primarily concerned with Rustin’s political activities, although they do find time to delve into his love life, with him having affairs with two men. One, a white man named Tom (Gus Halper), is devoted to him, but Rustin falls hard for a married, closeted preacher who’s bound to break his heart. The movie does a good job illustrating Rustin’s charisma and how he brought so many people together with his silver tongue and a gift for playing peacemaker.

The only issue with Rustin is that, like Wolfe’s last film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it almost feels like a staged play, with much of the film confined to people talking in rooms. The climactic march on Washington is only briefly depicted. However, the force of the performances keeps the movie from feeling stale, with Domingo making Rustin someone the audience is bound to have empathy for. Rock also impresses in a serious role, while Turman adds a lot of gravitas.

While Rustin could have been done in a more cinematic way, it’s good that the man has finally gotten his due, as for too long, his many contributions have been overlooked in the broader history of the Civil Rights Movement. Even if it’s talky and occasionally a bit dry, the acting and subject matter make it a must-see.

Rustin review


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