Colman Domingo blows through the title role like a force of nature in Rustin, an exhilarating biographical drama about the highly significant but not widely known civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, whose career and reputation in the 1960s were minimized, at least in part, by his hardly disguised homosexuality.
Director George C. Wolfe is best known for his extensive work in the theater, and what he has delivered here is exciting in several ways as it roars out of the gate, maintains an unflagging momentum all the way and will leave most viewers knowing a good deal more about the civil rights movement than they did the day before.
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This is a film for anyone remotely interested in the issues of the time and, especially in some of its lesser known aspects of, and disagreements with, the movement that have often been quietly pushed to the side.
Any number of politicos and activists from this crucial period remain household names to the point of being major icons. But in less than two hours, you will probably learn a lot more as you behold the many cross-currents, strongly held positions, setbacks, ideological battles and moments of bravery, both familiar and unknown, that course through this tempestuous drama. One also ponders how a player as crucial as Rustin has largely been ignored in recent decades, at least by the major shapers of history.
Rustin blasts off like a rocket and carries you with it as it shoves aside some of the pieties and accepted versions of things and touches on many of the disputes and disagreements within the aborning civil rights movement. Then there is the issue of Rustin’s homosexuality, which is initially portrayed by suggestion but soon enters unavoidably into the equation.
There is so much ground to cover here that a six-part miniseries on the subject would be required to do it even partial justice. But co-writers Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black have done an exceptional job of packing an enormous number of issues and points of view into less than two hours, and the celebrated theater director Wolfe evidently instructed his actors to try to exceed James Cagney’s machine-gun-speed dialogue delivery in order to cram the maximum amount of information in a feature-length film.
The meetings and arguments among the participants swirl endlessly around and take you along through agreed upon issues and sticky divisions alike. The viewer is seized by an immediacy and naturalness that makes you feel, more than is usual, that important history is being made on a daily basis, both because the usual pieties have largely been largely been dispensed with and because, for once, they should.
The script provides a great deal of background on civil rights without at all being didactic or bookish. The internal debates about policy, who should do what and when, and how to proceed with demonstrations demanding justice for minorities are exceedingly interesting.
Rustin, whose name and profile startlingly diminished and ultimately vanished as far as the general public was concerned, will certainly become far better known once the film turns up on Netflix. The man was a wonderful speaker and full of surprises. To be an “out” homosexual at the time represented a career-ending barrier, and the film shows how the central figure adjusted his manner of speaking depending upon which people and groups he was with at the time. Religion also played an important role in the movement, particularly where the Catholic Church was concerned.
But no matter what, the man was a whirlwind, the one most responsible for conceiving the 1963 March on Washington, which confirmed Martin Luther King Jr as the most important figure in the movement. Certainly there are many aspects of the event that are missing, but the film draws a straight line from Rustin’s early activities to what was accomplished at that pivotal time.
Domingo should emerge as a star on the basis of his performance here.
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Release dates: November 3, 2023 (theaters), November 17 (streaming)
Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenwriters: Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald
Running time: 1 hr 46 min
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