September 13, 2023
Rustin screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases it in theaters on November 03 before the film streams on November 17.
Rustin is exactly what you expected based on the premise: a by-the-numbers awards-baiting biopic filled with stars that’s made for the most general of audiences. Some would call that a cynical way to look at it, others would say it’s the only true way. In the end, it doesn’t matter as director George C. Wolfe’s film never does anything astounding or abysmal (save for maybe the extremely overbearing jazz score by Branford Marsalis) to ignite much passion in that argument.
As the unsung hero of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Bayard Rustin is the perfect figure to be given the biopic treatment. It also helps that he had the personality of a movie star, always taking over the room with his magnetic personality and witty banter. But these “attention-grabbing antics” and the fact that he was a homosexual made him unpopular within his ranks, particularly to NAACP president Roy Wilkins. But Rustin has Martin Luther King Jr. on his side, whom he recently convinced to stage a peaceful demonstration at the National Mall. He’s promised over 100,000 attendees, making it the largest political rally in American History, and only has eight weeks to organize and execute.
Those eight weeks fly by due to Wolfe’s ever-accelerating pacing and Dustin Lance Black and Justin Breece’s quick-on-its-feet script. Each scene is filmed with vigor, lasting only a few minutes before moving on to the next one. It’s an accomplishment that so much story is told within the 100-minute runtime, but it also begs the question as to why everything is so condensed and constricted. A life and moment in history as eventful and important as this could have been given at least another half hour, allowing for some of the less-than-satisfying subplots, such as Rustin’s tumultuous love triangle, to be given more time to develop.
Wolfe is also venturing a little more out of his element in this feature. As a winner of multiple Tony awards, 2020’s film adaption Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom provided a nice middle ground for his skills, with Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis giving career-defining performances. Rustin finds Wolfe still in that stagey mood as the flat camerawork makes the sets glaringly obvious, which the actors enter and walk around with overly careful coordination. The scenes may be flowing at a fast pace, but it never feels like they’re on the correct course.
Fortunately, there’s a hero who swoops in and saves the day by the name of Colman Domingo. He’s been putting in the work over decades, with some flowers blossoming in the form of a Tony nomination and Emmy win just in the past few years. Now an Oscar nomination (and potential win) are in his sights, as his portrayal of the titular character is effortlessly engaging. He’s backed up by an admirable supporting cast, many of which deserve more time than they get.
Rustin won’t live on in the public consciousness for its craft, but it most certainly will because of Domingo’s performance. It’s a shame the whole package couldn’t come together, but it’s hard to complain when the headliner is just that good and the objective of the mission is to enlighten just as much as it is to entertain.