Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Rustin: Movie Review

A biopic that matches its lead character.
Rustin starts a little chaotically; a jazz score with Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) in various political offices with various political bigwigs and African American leaders. It feels out of sorts and difficult to get into, and while it’s not obvious at first, this is very much on purpose. Rustin is a traditional biopic but it tries to skirt familiarity by giving the film the same personality as its subject.   2023

Directed by: George C. Wolfe

Screenplay by: Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black

Starring: Colman Domingo

Bayard Rustin is not a famous African American activist compared to his contemporaries Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John Lewis, for many reasons but we can start with: he’s gay, argumentative, a little volatile and unfocused. He does not have the calming demeanor of Martin Luther King nor can he command respect like John Lewis. It took Bayard a while to find a project he could sink his teeth into, the March on Washington, and likewise it takes the film what feels like a long while to settle down and start telling the story of how the March came to be.

Something I really appreciate about this film is how the various aspects of his personality are shown as opposed to being explicitly told. Not a lot of time is spent on his gay relationships, and they are more a subtle but constant throughline during the film as opposed to something major and needs to be hammered home. The film often feels like it assumes the audience knows who he is, and even for those of us who don’t, it’s a refreshing angle to take because we’re not being talked down to.

At the beginning, most of Bayard’s allies are young White people. This is not specifically mentioned, but I presume it’s because the Black followers of King for instance are all church going people who are opposed to Rustin’s homosexuality and those with political aspirations also need to distance themselves from Rustin so he has had to find solidarity within a different crowd. The standout of this group is Gus Halper as Tom, Rustin’s “assistant”, also known as a gay fling who Rustin refuses to call his boyfriend. Tom wants to be more but Rustin refuses to take advantage of him, even as his right-hand man in the organizing of the March, Rustin always credits Tom, and makes sure others realize how much he respects and values him.

The most interesting aspects of the film is the organization of the March, which is most of the movie. How Rustin gets the other various African American groups involved, his fight with the National Parks service over how many days he’s allowed to have Washington square, and how they’re going to get this protest to appeal to every different corner of the country. While this might sound dry, it’s not, and Rustin’s loud personality keeps the film moving with many entertaining exchanges, and then, when you’re least expecting embraces the few emotional moments when he realizes he has fallen in love – with a married, closeted man.

Colman Domingo is currently in the midst of the Best Actor Oscars race. He’s up against some heavy hitters so I’m not going to predict he wins, but he deserves every recognition he gets. He has introduced me to an important player in the Civil Rights history and I don’t think I’m going to forget him anytime soon.

One of the Best of 2023