Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“RUSTIN”

THE STORY – Bayard Rustin, advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., dedicates his life to the quest for racial equality, human rights and worldwide democracy. However, as an openly gay Black man, he is all but erased from the civil rights movement he helped build.

THE CAST – Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Jeffrey Wright & Audra McDonald

THE TEAM – George C. Wolfe (Director), Julian Breece & Dustin Lance Black (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes


Films about real people are as old as cinema itself. Thankfully, recent years have seen a shift away from the more old-fashioned “cradle-to-grave” story style and more towards films that focus on one key period of time or single event through which an audience can learn a person’s whole story. Given that stories of real people who made an impact on the world are still some of Hollywood’s favorite stories to tell, it’s understandable that people gnash their teeth and stomp their feet every time a new biopic comes out that doesn’t bear a fresh artistic perspective or auteuristic flourish to make the film feel more unique among the sea of biopics that already exist. While these criticisms come from a place of love – for cinema and sometimes, but not always, for the film’s subject – they aren’t always appropriate. Every subject is different, and while some would benefit from the strong artistic stamp of a visionary auteur, not all of them do. The best biopics are films that honor their subjects’ spirit and story by using an artistic style that best exemplifies their lived experience. Sometimes, a more artistic approach works (Pablo Larraín’s double feature of “Jackie” and “Spencer,” for example), but sometimes a more conventional approach is the right way to go.

This brings us to George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin,” written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, starring Colman Domingo in the titular role of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the driving force behind making the famous 1963 March on Washington happen. Still, his name has been largely lost to history due to his being both Black and gay (and for having Communist affiliations at a time when such things were viewed as treasonous). In fact, his involvement in the civil rights movement was such a liability that, at one point, he was forced to resign and was only brought back when it became clear that no one else had the vision and the ability to organize a protest of the scale the march needed to be. Rustin’s story is one of intersectionality, of bringing people together to make the impossible possible, of one man’s indomitable spirit that nevertheless was pushed to the background because of personal matters that had nothing to do with the good he was able to put into the world but everything to do with who he was. Appropriately, “Rustin” takes the form of an inspirational activist film, following Rustin through his personal life as he brings people together for a common cause, knowing full well that his personal proclivities could put a stop to this historical event. It is a film about people putting aside differences to work for the common good, embodying the maxim of how the arc of history is long but bends towards justice.

The world is finally at that bending point for Bayard Rustin, but it wasn’t during his lifetime. Despite rulings by the highest court in the land, Black men and women were still being discriminated against wherever they went. What few bars there were that catered to gay men were under constant threat of raids. Even the slightest whisper about someone’s private acts and beliefs could put them on the wrong side of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Because of this, and because he did not exactly keep his sexuality a secret from those close to him, Rustin finds himself on the outs with the civil rights movement that he has worked so hard for. Even the man he was closest to, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Aml Ameen), whose leanings toward non-violent resistance were shaped by Rustin, is willing to cut him loose. But after the heinous murder of Medgar Evers, Rustin demands his seat at the table back and gets it, along with a commitment to the largest organized march on the nation’s capitol, over the protestations of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and NAACP head Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock). In order to pull it off, though, Rustin will have to compromise with authorities and the other civil rights leaders like Powell and Wilkins, as well as keep his sexual proclivities in check, especially his relationship with his white “assistant” Tom (Gus Halper) and young preacher Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey).

Given we know the March on Washington was a success of historic proportions, “Rustin” doesn’t waste any time questioning whether or not the event will succeed, spending the bulk of its running time focusing on the patchwork quilt of activists and organizations that Rustin stitches together, and the concessions they all have to make in order to ensure it happens. The film works as a tribute to not only Rustin but to all the nameless, faceless volunteers who put in countless hours to make the march happen, as well as other civil rights leaders whose names many audience members will not know: A. Phillip Randolph (Glynn Turman), Cleveland Robinson (Michael Potts), Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder), and Ella Baker (Audra McDonald), just to name a few. The work all these people did to move civil rights forward in this country was invaluable, and it is in keeping with Rustin’s community-driven spirit that they all get a bright light shining on their contributions in a film about him.

But this is a film about Bayard Rustin at the end of the day, and while it’s possible that “Rustin” still could have worked without Domingo in the lead role, it’s unquestionable that he is the best thing in the film, enough to justify the film’s existence all on his own. The fiery, passionate, take-no-prisoners speeches may be the things that garnered spontaneous applause at the film’s Telluride and Toronto film festival premieres, and they absolutely deserve it. The quieter moments, though, are when Domingo really shines. The look of utter confusion melts into total devastation when Taylor’s wife (a show-stopping Adrienne Warren) calls him directly to tell him that he will not see her husband again, the fear giving way to determination when Baker tells him to own his power to get back in with the movement, the sudden and unmistakable look of shock and powerlessness when Powell mentions the single word “Pasadena.” Domingo is working on every level possible, both going big and pulling back when the moment calls for it. He pitches his voice up and loosens his body movement to make himself resemble Rustin more closely, but what really makes the performance sing is how he displays his soul.

For his part, Wolfe doesn’t let the film go slack for even a second. In the moments when the pace slows to let Rustin breathe, the director keeps the electricity of the busier scenes in the air, creating the feeling that the film itself is vibrating with the activist energy burning inside the man. While he mostly stays out of the way of the script and performances, when the opportunity arises to do something more visually engaging, he takes it. The transition into a flashback from Rustin’s past is elegant and impactful, slowly leeching out the film’s vibrant colors to present the horror of getting beaten and arrested in stark black & white. This sequence makes it clear that Wolfe has very much thought through the visual schema of his film through more than just the blocking of actors in the frame, which is still one of the theater-trained director’s biggest strengths. “Rustin” is designed to bring us into Bayard’s head as much as possible while keeping almost equal focus on the people surrounding him, embodying the movement he fought so hard for. Branford Marsalis’s jazz-inflected score helps with this, too, keeping everything loose and free-flowing.

The film isn’t afraid of big emotions but keeps them all tethered to the behind-the-scenes work, keeping the most historical moments of the March on Washington largely offscreen. We’ve seen these images and heard these words countless times over the years. This is the time for Bayard Rustin and others like him in the background to have their moment. And what a moment it is. You can complain all you want about how this film is conventional, bland, or whatever other nominally negative descriptors you’d like, but you’d be missing the bigger, finer points of the film. “Rustin” does have a solid visual identity, deep thematic work, and strong editing to keep its inspirational story moving forward. It may color inside the lines, so to speak, but the colors it uses are bright and beautiful, and the picture they’re filling in is one we haven’t seen before. There’s value in that, especially when it’s all done well, and “Rustin” is as finely crafted a film as you will see this year. If that craft is applied to a film that maybe doesn’t have as noticeable an artistic point of view as the most interesting biopics, at least it’s applied in service of a vision that is true to the person it’s depicting and how they saw the world. Films like that are always worth celebrating, especially when the person featured has been hidden by history for so long.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Colman Domingo shines as the iconic, forgotten civil rights leader in a rousing film that exemplifies his organizing spirit.

THE BAD - Shot and structured just like any other biopics that focus on one particular period in a person's life.

THE OSCARS - Best Actor (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Colman Domingo shines as the iconic, forgotten civil rights leader in a rousing film that exemplifies his organizing spirit.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Shot and structured just like any other biopics that focus on one particular period in a person's life.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"RUSTIN"