Directed by George C. Wolfe.
Starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Bill Irwin, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, Gus Halper, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Carra Patterson, Adrienne Warren, Audra McDonald, Daniel Johnson, John Barnes, Jules Latimer, Cotter Smith, Lilli Kay, Jeffrey Wright, and Adams Bellouis.
Gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin helps Martin Luther King Jr. and others organize the 1963 March on Washington.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Rustin wouldn’t exist.
Civil rights and gay rights often intersect, including the 1941 March on Washington, the largest March anyone had ever seen at that point, which resulted in Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The brainstorming of that protest came from Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo, serviceable delivery an eccentric, somewhat overly animated, showy performance), a gay Black man who often couldn’t let himself get too close romantically since he felt that there was still racial freedom work to be done.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, Rustin is a broad cliff-notes version of this event that fails to meaningfully explore any of its characters, partially because that in-your-face performance from Colman Domingo drowns everything out. That’s without even getting into the lack of drama as the protest plans come together and how surface-level Rustin’s experience as a gay Black man is portrayed. Then, the March happens, and the film abruptly ends.
It is also never a good sign when the screenplay (courtesy of Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black) feels the need to have a character voice the film’s tagline, which is “own your power,” barely five minutes into the movie. The filmmakers certainly don’t own much of what would work here, which is the dynamic of Bayard Rustin being somewhat ostracized by critical civil rights communities even though he is fighting for the same causes and then some. There are fleeting, moving scenes here with Bayard Rustin attempting to convince a fellow Black man (Johnny Ramey) to embrace his homosexuality without fear. Friction also exists between Bayard Rustin and his white sexual partner, Tom (Gus Halper), who wants to be more than the occasional hookup fling.
The rest is an assortment of scenes ranging from Bayard Rustin arguing with members of the NAACP, namely leader Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock, looking older than he ever has on screen before and delivering a distractingly comedic performance at times), ordering around the dozens and dozens of supporters heading up different sectors of what it takes to put this march together (transportation, tents, food and water, etc.), and the rekindling of a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) that is jarringly broken apart and repaired all within the first act. There is no denying that Rustin moves along, but hardly any of it makes an impression beyond the performances. It’s also no help that the filmmakers repeatedly utilize brief flashbacks of Bayard Rustin’s brush with police brutality for cheap dramatic effect when the point was already gotten across the first time.
This is an important story to tell, with Bayard Rustin also serving as an equally important person to make a movie about. Unfortunately, the execution in Rustin is way off, and by the time it ends, it doesn’t even feel like a finished film. It’s basic, broad, and severely missing tension, suspense, emotional depth, hell, anything that would render this experience effective beyond the flashy performance Colman Domingo is allowed to give.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com