Rustin (Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Ami Ameen, Jeffrey Wright, CCH Pounder) – In November 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Who was Bayard Rustin? Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company joined with producer/director George C. Wolfe and others to tell Rustin’s story through film.
Rustin seeks both to educate and celebrate the man who proposed, planned, and pulled off the March on Washington (for Jobs and Freedom) in August 1963. While the March will always be remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, Rustin was the force behind the march.
A longtime friend of King (portrayed convincingly by Ami Ameen), Rustin is a complicated man who strongly believed in non-violent, civil disobedience. His activism was undeniable though his methods and flamboyance often put him outside the mainstream of the civil rights movement. The fact that he was also gay meant that he was kept outside the black power structure. The NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, disavowed him (Chris Rock delivers a marginal performance.) Congressman Adam Clayton Powell outed him (Jeffrey Wright is memorable in a two-scene cameo.)
Colman Domingo, whose brilliant performance in the most recent version of The Color Purple, inhabits the Rustin character in a mesmerizing performance that has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, perhaps denying Leonardo DiCaprio a nod for Killers of the Flower Moon.
Domingo is no overnight success. Now 54, he has appeared in Lincoln, Selma, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, If Beale Street Could Talk and dozens of other films and television series. He is one of those actors who you will recognize but rarely can place.
What Rustin lacks in cinematic depth, it makes up in earnestness. The story is somewhat thin, choosing to focus on Rustin’s sexual orientation more than needed. We long to know more about his relationship with Martin and Coretta King as well as the other leaders of the movement. While we meet many of those people, including John Lewis, Medgar Evers, Wilkins, and Powell, the film doesn’t dig deep. The effect is to make Rustin a character study, not a documentary.
The film moved straight to streaming on Netflix, making it broadly available but not a money maker. Thus, there is almost no excuse not to learn more about this justifiably heralded man and his lifelong quest to bring civil rights to all Americans.