Rustin (dir. George C. Wolfe)

By: Adam Freed

The American quest for equality has been a long and winding road.  American history is scattered with notable flag bearers whose sacrifice has been well documented in social studies classrooms across the fifty states.  Bayard Rustin is not one of those notable names.  Rustin, (November 17) a delightfully paced Netflix Studios biopic produced by Michelle and Barack Obama presents the story of an influential black American outwardly fighting for racial equality while quietly attempting to manage the stark realities of being an openly gay man in 1960’s America.  

The eminent sense of joy cultivated within the captivating biopic is a credit to a duality of factors.  First, is director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who tells the tale of the Martin Luther King friend and confidant with a winning pace, that surely glances lightly over a few historically pivotal moments, but does so in favor of committing to a film that is utterly watchable despite its difficult subject matter.  The major winner of the film though is its lead Colman Domingo who portrays Bayard Rustin with a dramatic flair and intellectual integrity that measures amongst the greatest biopic depictions in recent memory.  Domingo (Candyman, Drive Away Dolls) is very likely poised for stardom as a result of his emotionally complex and wildly gravitational performance.  

The hill that Rustin is forced to climb can be laid at the feet of its production studio and not at the production itself.  There is no secret that Netflix is in the mass appeal business, and in order to gain valuable market share in the streaming wars, compressing a decade of civil rights tug of war into 105 minutes feels overly paced.  In addition the film never quite escapes its own saccharine nature.  The irony is that its sweet and digestible exterior is what will make it a fan favorite, but may also be what prevents it from being truly representative of the absolute terrors faced by black and homosexual Americans 60 years ago.

By attaching the Obama family name to the production, Rustin draws top tier supporting talent to bolster Colman Domingo’s commanding performance.  Chris Rock is convincing as NAACP leader, and Bayard Rustin detractor Roy Wilkins.  Jeffery Wright offers a mesmerizing portrayal of Rep. Adam Clayton Powel, who famously stood as roadblock to Mr. Rustin’s mission, fearing that having a gay civil rights leader would harm, rather than help the cause.  The story of Bayard Rustin could not be told though without the inclusion of Reverend King, and playing the role with conviction is Aml Ameen.  Despite being swallowed at times by Colman Domingo’s gravity, Ameen’s MLK provides the steady, stoic and more historically conventional counterpunch to Mr. Rustin’s flamboyant leadership.  Rustin is a film that will be screened in progressive social studies classrooms for years to come, and for the emerging historians taking it in, America will gain one more notable civil rights icon.

Target Score: 7/10 - Sharp, witty and delightfully paced, Rustin is a biopic winner.  Colman Domingo’s portrayal of the overlooked civil rights hero is a masterclass in emotional range and artistic command. 

Rustin was screened in conjunction with the 59th Annual Chicago International Film Festival.