George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” provides a unique perspective on the famous 1963 March on Washington. While the historic event correctly recalls memories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Rustin” documents one of the crucial men behind the march’s inception, Bayard Rustin, played here by Colman Domingo. While working against the forces of a disinterested and hostile culture that targeted Rustin’s Blackness, Rustin also had to navigate societal and intracommunity animosity on account of his homosexuality. “Rustin” aims to be an ode to its titular figure and an education on the grassroots activism that put one of America’s most lauded events in our history books.
The opening of “Rustin” quotes the unconstitutionality of segregation and then slides through a slow-motion montage of instantly identifiable chapters in the movement: Ruby Bridges, guarded from the front and back, walking to school in 1960 as the first Black student to be integrated in Louisiana; Elizabeth Eckford being berated on her way to class in 1957, surrounded by hateful schoolmates; and Anne Moody, stoic during her 1963 sit-in at a diner as food is being thrown on her in protest from the white people inside. It’s a somewhat melodramatic montage included only as evidence that racism existed outside of legislation. And though these historic moments are essential, their cliched inclusion is just as surface-level as the entirety of Wolfe’s film.
“Rustin” tends to present cliches as discourse but succeeds better at detailing events leading up to the march and showcasing its hero as a whole person. Domingo, who collaborated with Wolfe in 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is excellent as Rustin. He’s charismatic, gritty when he needs to be, and wildly intelligent. Co-writers Dustin Lance Black and Julian Breece provide a witty script, and Domingo executes its humor flawlessly. There are plenty of laughs that break up some of the more touching moments, but unfortunately, the passing comedic lines far outshine those meant to leave an emotional impact. Where the humor succeeds, the film’s pathos falters.
Rustin’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) is a central part of the story, as is his intermittent romantic relationship with a younger activist, Tom (Gus Halper). Both men have excellent chemistry with Domingo, holding their own while also functioning to give the movie a nuanced lead. His budding romance with Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a fictionalized pastor on the NAACP board, is another key relationship in the emotional construction of Rustin. Rustin isn’t treated solely as an activist, considered only for the lines on his resume, but as a man with touchy friendships, hurt feelings, and charm to a fault. However, it also often teeters into melodrama, jumping from one item on the script’s outline to the next.
As “Rustin” relays the difficulties of unifying 100,000 Black people to arrive at the Lincoln Memorial for the largest nonviolent protest in the movement’s history, we get a peripheral look at the figures and factors at play. From the NAACP’s initial shutdown of the idea (with Chris Rock playing Roy Wilkins, the Executive Secretary) to the immoveable faith and support A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) had in Rustin, Wolfe’s film is the document of a fight. A fight not only against organizations but also differing approaches in the movement, as SNCC, the SCLC, and early followers of Malcolm X (the Black Panthers were not officially founded until 1966) united together.
“Rustin” was undoubtedly made in admiration of its subject. Yet, with a stale approach to its plotline and confused narrative priorities, the film is more like an educational outline than a spirited story. While care was taken to give nuance to Rustin himself, the context is left neglected. The watered-down linchpin of “Rustin” is that racism exists off the page, and the film presents this obvious truth on a silver platter while deeming it a five-star meal.