A solid biopic that uses its words for freedom wisely.
Colman Domingo stars as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the new Netflix biography “Rustin, which has its flaws but still enough courage to lead on. It pertains to how he helped organize the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington of 1963, how he was gay, and suffered from police brutality, and it’s handled with complexity.
This particular march had its challenges, like Rustin’s homosexuality, the rule that this 2-day rally would have to be set for one day, and how difficult it is to keep everyone on board. It’s all within the time period, which is sad but true, and even if you already know this story, you still need to be reminded. You have to know your past to know your future. It’s not my line, but it’s true.
As the film begins, Rustin convinces Martin Luther King, Jr. (Aml Ameen) to lead a Civil Rights march adjacent to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Plans were canceled because of rumors regarding an affair between the two, and this is when Rustin left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In summation, he and Martin have gone their separate ways.
Years later, he gets recruited by American labor unionist A. Phillip Randolph (Glynn Turman) to organize a march in Washington. Rustin claims to have lost his number with MLKJ, but Randolph tells him to find it.
Within the preparations, he has his conflicts with NAACP chairman Roy Watkins (Chris Rock), his reunion with MLKJ, and has a few affairs. In this movie, they consist of his white assistant Tom (Gus Halper), who has his issues within their relationship and collaboration, and a married Elias (Johnny Ramsey), who is next in line to run his father-in-law’s church. See the decisions made by these characters, and how their emotions bring out their strengths and weaknesses.
Director George C. Wolfe (in his first entry since “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which also featured Domino and Turman) doesn’t give the film all the time it needs to fully examine this civil rights activist’s life and turmoil, but he does make it clear that he is reminding us on who he is, what he dealt with, and how he used his words of courage. Domingo is an actor with the perfect amount of range to go deep inside the real life figure, and keep his tone at a steady pace.
The cast is spot on. You have Audra McDonald as activist Ella Josephine Baker, CCH Pounder as activist Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Michael Potts as American labor organizer Cleveland Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Bill Irwin as clergyman A.J. Muste, and Jeffrey Wright as Baptist pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Out of the supporting actors in the movie, Ameen, Ramsey, Turman, Pounder, and Wright are all universally excellent. You have to acknowledge their tones and consistencies to really appreciate them.
The movie is also beautifully photographed with the best shots having Rustin running after word about his gayness threaten to taint the organization. And also the flashbacks when police have attacked him for sitting near the front of the bus and for some sexual activity, which is how he lost a tooth. It’s all pulsating and dangerous, especially by its time period. And seeing the combination of archival footage with new footage regarding the 1963 march is captivating and uplifting.
“Selma” had a more powerful and more patient aspect on MLKJ and his impact than “Rustin” does, which is why I can’t give it a full 4-star rating. But it’s really Domingo who carries the movie and strongly commits to the role. It’s one of his career-best performances, and maybe up for Oscar consideration. Of course, I could be saying that to other actors in other movies this holiday season, but I can sense a great performance from a mile away.
Now Playing in Select Theaters and Streaming on Netflix November 17
This article was written by me with full support of the SAG-AFTRA strike.