There’s such a sheen of biopic respectability coating Rustin—Netflix’s new award-season entrant—that you almost miss how radical it is.
RUSTIN ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
It is not just that the film, George C. Wolfe’s follow-up to 2020’s triumphant August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, undoes decades of erasure by centering the story of one of the major moments in the fight for civil rights—the 1963 March on Washington—around Black Queer activist Bayard Rustin. Nor is it simply that Wolfe manages to frame the unglamorous and often tedious process of community organizing with the vigor and splash of a musical number. (Rustin both envisioned and organized the March right down to which sandwiches would be served to the roughly 250 thousand or so participants—peanut butter and jelly handles the heat of Washington, D.C. in August better than cheese).
The structure itself is also bold. The script from Julian Breece (a co-writer on the Emmy-nominated Netflix series When They See Us) and Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning writer of Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Milk) kicks off the story of one of 20th century America’s great four act lives in an unusual way—not with one of Rustin’s great triumphs, but with a betrayal near the end of his life’s second act.
Things begin with Rustin (Colman Domingo), then a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, pitching a protest to correspond with the 1960 Democratic convention to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther (Aml Ameen). The idea is soundly rejected by the movement’s homophobic old guard, represented by NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright, in such an incendiary supporting turn that one can imagine the star being double-nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for both this and his role in the upcoming American Fiction).
The incident leads to King accepting Rustin’s resignation from SCLC leadership, a move seen then and now as King’s moral failing. (In what can only be called the Dr.-Dre-ification of Dr. King, Ameen plays the energetic icon as if he is the coolest, most laidback individual in any room he is in.)
Cut free from the biting internal politics of the civil rights movement, Rustin turns to his attention to the youth that were agitating for more aggressive change from the newly-elected Kennedy White House. It is here that Domingo’s performance truly comes alive. Following his turn as the vicious pimp in Janicza Bravo’s Zola (perhaps the single best film performance of 2020), Domingo commits the fullness of his 6’2” frame and every ounce of his soul to render Rustin’s erudite irascibility and pulsing intellect. The perfect actor with the perfect part at an ideal moment in his career, Domingo doesn’t simply embody Rustin, he liberates him.
Inspired by his young charges and aided by his mentor A. Philip Randolph (played by Domingo’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom costar Glynn Turman), Rustin, whose visionary brilliance was matched by his ability to sweat the details, becomes the executive director for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (The Holdovers’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph cameos as Mahalia Jackson, one of musician Rustin’s musical heroes, and she is breathtaking.)
If this all sounds a bit hagiographic, it is. But this is an overcorrection that can be forgiven given the extent that Rustin—the man who introduced MLK to the practice of non-violence—has been struck out of much of the historical record.
While Wolfe’s film ends well before the start of Rustin’s final act (the last thing he did at the March was pick up trash), you can still watch it play out thanks to Matt Wolf’s award-winning 2017 short Bayard & Me, available on both Vimeo and as part of the current Criterion Channel programming of eight Matt Wolf documentaries, which highlights the director’s films about Queer visionaries and outsiders. It tells the story of how Rustin, having outlived many of his civil rights contemporaries, adopted his young white boyfriend Walter Naegle in order to obtain the legal protections of marriage at a time when gay marriage was politically unimaginable.
It was another creative solution forged in the foundry of grave injustice. Alongside Wolfe’s profound and nuanced film and Domingo’s dynamic performance, the documentary serves as the perfect way to honor a man who always understood that in the long march towards a more perfect union, the word “No” was never the end; it was the starting point.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.