In the short time that Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions has been around, we've already come to expect that when the Obamas decide to say something it's something we ought to be listening to. This proves to be true once again with George C. Wolfe's energetic and engaging Rustin, a breakout flick of sorts for beloved character actor Colman Domingo and the kind of film that the Obamas have become known for supporting.
Rustin isn't so much a biopic as a history lesson about the all too often forgotten Bayard Rustin (Domingo), organizer of the1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights. It was an event intentionally timed to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and, perhaps more memorably, it is the event where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his mesmerizing and never forgotten "I Have a Dream" speech to over a quarter of a million people.
Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama, Rustin's fierce intellectualism and personal eccentricities are captured vibrantly by Domingo. It's the kind of performance that screams out for awards season and it's almost unfathomable that Domingo won't be remembered when it comes around. As someone who attended a largely Black college, I've always been acutely aware of the lack of attention paid to Rustin. A charismatic yet outspoken sort who could clash with the best of them, Rustin was also a semi-openly gay Black man at a time when being gay and Black were still treated as illegal in this country. Rustin had a gift for making big ideas accessible, yet his philosophies and beliefs were hard-earned as evidenced by the pronounced broken tooth that reminds us all of his beating by the police.
Even among the great Black orators of the 1960s, Rustin shined. Raised as a Philly Quaker, his passion for peaceful protest was well defined. Rustin is co-written by Julian Breece (When They See Us) and Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk). Dialogue is precise, snappy, energized, and quite electric. It's reminiscent of director George C. Wolfe's criminally under-appreciated Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Unknown to many, Rustin co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside King. The two would eventually have a falling out, Rustin largely relegated to the mostly white anti-nuke movement. When Rustin begins envisioning the 1963 March, however, and gains the support of Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) and union activist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), it's clear that King's presence is needed.
Much of Rustin is about the build-up to the event itself, an opportunity to shine the light on the remarkable organizing and relationship building that took place by Rustin. It was no small effort to unite the strong hearts and minds of the 1960's civil rights movement and Rustin's ability to empower, cajole, and finesse is awe-inspiring.
It goes without saying that Rustin gives us many of the familiar names from the era including King (Aml Ameel), Coretta Scott King (Carra Patterson), John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), NAACP head Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), Mahalia Jackson (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, herself getting Oscar buzz this year for Alexander Payne's The Holdovers), and others.
Rustin is at its strongest when focusing on Rustin's activism; Rustin tries but mostly falls short in bringing to life how Rustin's being a gay Black man during this era impacted his activism and, one could easily surmise, his legacy. Interestingly, it really was only in the 1980s that Rustin became more engaged with the growing gay rights movement.
There's no question that Domingo will be remembered come awards season. Jeffrey Wright also shines in a relatively brief appearance as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Audra McDonald shines as Ella Baker and Turman never disappoints.
Rustin is a passion project through and through. It's awards season fodder, though most of its awards season prospects likely exist in Domingo considering we're looking at a crowded awards season this year. Opening in limited nationwide release on November 3rd, Rustin hits Netflix on November 17th where it will no doubt find the audience it deserves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic