- Directed by George C. Wolfe
- Written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black
- Starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper
- Classification N/A (PG-13 in the US); 106 minutes
- Now playing in theatres, on Netflix Nov. 17
Imagine making a movie that builds up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and then just glossing over that part. Rustin lets the air out at precisely that moment’s climax: When 250,000 people, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, are hanging onto MLK’s every word during the iconic speech.
The uneven and sentimental biopic, directed by George C. Wolfe, follows Bayard Rustin, the openly gay organizer and activist played with heart and gusto by Colman Domingo. If you’re going in with marginal familiarity of civil rights milestones, and Rustin’s role, you might not even realize this movie is about the rigorous hustle and defiance it took to give MLK the platform to deliver that speech.
The obvious reason for cutting off MLK’s mic in the film, figuratively speaking, is that Steven Spielberg owns the movie rights to MLK’s life, which prevents anyone else from using his speeches on the big screen. Ava DuVernay had to rewrite the preacher’s words for her 2015 film Selma. It’s possible that even a movie executive produced by the Obamas, as Rustin is, couldn’t finagle a few syllables from the archives. So instead, Wolfe’s film, which tends to be big and operatic during small scenes in living rooms and hole in the wall bars, shrinks when it arrives at the Lincoln Memorial.
It’s not like Rustin is lacking for speeches. The movie has plenty of awards-reel ready clips where Domingo relishes his role as an orator who can inspire or challenge, even while zipping it up at a urinal. “Inspiration untethered to action has no value,” is a gem he drops, just after relieving himself.
The more generous read on the final sequence in Washington is that Wolfe and writers Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black (of Milk fame) chose to keep the emphasis on their titular subject, whom history left in the shadows because of his sexuality. This is a rare movie that tackles what it’s like to be marginalized within a movement fighting marginalization.
Rustin, which largely focuses on the months leading up to the march, is built from scenes in living rooms and board rooms, where leaders from activist groups butt heads on what progress and protest should look like. During these moments, we witness Rustin’s experience as a doubly oppressed gay Black man, who is often shunned by his peers and struggles to find solidarity even in the company of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a powerful story that succeeds despite some of the movie’s flawed narrative choices; from its misshapen structure, where a certain randomness seems to dictate what to leave in and out, to a tendency to lay it on thick.
Wolfe hails from the stage, directing both musicals (Caroline, or Change) and dramas (Angels in America). His movies, like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tend to move with a sense of theatricality and musicality, stringing us along to a double bass line. That works splendidly for Domingo during scenes when Rustin is entertaining an audience, like the young activists and organizers who look to him for instruction and inspiration. Though other cast members can struggle with that onstage vibe, appearing as though they’re performing showtunes but without the tunes. Jeffrey Wright, who worked with Wolfe in Angels in America, devours his few scenes as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the snaky congressman weaponizing homophobia against Rustin.
Given the way these politicians tried to shame Rustin for being queer, I wish the movie was less bashful with his sexuality – it definitely plays to the “no sex on screen” crowd. The film’s most powerful scenes happen during forbidden romances, when Domingo’s Rustin shows naked emotions and refuses to compromise his affections and passion in the same way he won’t compromise his politics. Even in those scenes, we’re refused the climax.