Starring: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Gus Halper, and Bill Irwin
Director: George C. Wolfe
I guarantee you've seen the nuts and bolts of Rustin before, but something about this film works better than most average biopics. Maybe it's just how incredible Bayard Rustin's (Colman Domingo) story of being a forgotten yet important part of the Civil Rights Movement is… Or maybe it's Domingo's instantly charming performance that both devastates and empowers at the same time… Or maybe it's the frenetic energy the film offers in telling this story… or the quick and snappy dialogue that adds layers of surprising entertainment. Whatever it is, it made Rustin work.
Honestly, there’s nothing overly unique about Rustin, save for the performance of Colman Domingo. But Domingo is excellent as he brings a sense of optimism and humanity to Bayard Rustin, a man I admittedly didn’t know much about. Unlike prior civil rights films, this one doesn’t focus on the turmoil. Rustin was a pacifist, so it was only fitting to give him a film with such a positive gaze on the events. There are a couple cliché moments, and some of the casting is a little suspect (Chris Rock feels out of place), but Rustin succeeds in bringing eyes to the story of this influential man.
Colman Domingo is a force to be reckoned with as the titular role in Rustin. Combine his zeal with an energetic score and a who’s who of legendary black character actors, and you have more than enough to overlook its instances of not-so-subtle messaging and poorly done ADR. But even more so, it was extremely refreshing to see the life, and loves, that make our exalted civil rights heroes (particularly one who is not so well known) flawed and human. Rustin is a film of pure heart and emotion funneled through its fresh story, invigorating ensemble, and absolutely Oscar-worthy lead performance.
Rustin is a surprisingly conventional biopic, elevated by dedicated performances and the remarkable story of Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) and his overlooked yet integral contribution to the civil rights movement. Although it dutifully moves through the predictable beats of any other biopic, it’s saved by a powerful central performance from Domingo, who embodies his character in every aspect of his being. The energetic jazz score and rapid dialogue propel the narrative and make up for a script that relies on a lot of talking as exposition. Although the film is somewhat average, Domingo’s performance and Rustin’s story certainly are not.
Despite a knockout performance from Colman Domingo and an important-but-little-known story about an important-but-little-known civil rights hero, Rustin is slightly too paint-by-numbers to truly resonate. Admittedly, his sexuality adds an interesting wrinkle, but overall, it’s pretty standard fare that hits all the typical story beats you've seen in similar movies, civil rights films and biopics alike. That doesn’t make it bad, per se, and I wouldn’t call it unnecessary because it’s a story deserving to be told, but aside from Domingo (and Jeffrey Wright), it's just a little underwhelming due to its familiarity.
This film was reviewed by Adriano and Nick as part of Bitesize Breakdown's coverage of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.