Rustin review – Colman Domingo shines in by-the-numbers civil rights biopic | Toronto film festival 2023

We’re in the middle of this year’s fall festival season which also means that we’re starting this year’s Oscar season which, as ever, then means that we’re in the thick of the dreaded biopic season. Films about Priscilla Presley, Leonard Bernstein, Enzo Ferrari, Nicholas Winton and Lee Miller are all trying to add fresh dynamism to the facts and figures of biographies, a practice that more often than not, feels rather thankless. Or at least it does to us as viewers. Academy members and actors trying to impress Academy members might disagree, the last decade offering up 15 acting Oscars to those playing dress-up as real people.

What marks Netflix’s Oscar play Rustin out, at least on initial scan, is its focus on the kind of person who isn’t usually afforded a place in this particular spotlight, a gay Black man whose story hasn’t trickled down to as many of us as it should have. Even at the time, in the fraught early 60s, the life and work of Bayard Rustin was being diminished, his contributions too often outweighed by bigotry over his sexuality. Played by Colman Domingo, an actor finally receiving his leading man due, Rustin is a tireless activist, fighting alongside his close friend Martin Luther King Jr (a note-perfect Aml Ameen). But childish rumours about their relationship, started and maintained by their peers, led to public controversy and a rift in their friendship.

Hurt by what he sees as a betrayal by his friend but still plagued by the grim cycle of anti-Black violence of the time, Rustin wanted to make a statement, with or without King’s help, and decided to plan a march, uniting those from across the country who were as tired as he, descending on the Capitol in their thousands. The film follows his dogged journey to make it happen, in the space of mere weeks, as others within the movement continue to undermine him.

While an increasing number of writers and film-makers are arming themselves with a hyper-awareness of the biopic’s cliches and pitfalls, trying to upend expectations with unexpected tweaks, the makers of Rustin are content to stay within strict formula. It’s understandable for the most part, given how little many know of Rustin’s work, but at other times it can give the film a parodic quality (not helped by the distracting appearance of Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins). Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black’s ho-hum screenplay relies a little too heavily on clumsy exposition and there’s an inconsistent and distracting choice to add names and job titles of characters on screen as they’re introduced. It’s also not helped by the static quality of George C Wolfe’s direction and that, coupled with the trademark Netflix cheapness, gives some of it the feeling of a History Channel re-enactment.

It’s when the script leans into the story’s specificities that the film is at its most compelling – when intersectionality causes ruptures within the group, when we see civil rights giants fail to understand the hypocrisy of their homophobic bigotry, how Rustin manages his queerness in public and in private – and these moments help to provide depth to some of the flatness that’s in the more standard-issue scenes. Even when the film is playing it as safe as can be, the bare bones of the story are so undeniably impressive that it’s hard not to feel moved by what was achieved, a feeling that’s also largely down to Domingo’s all-guns-blazing performance. He nails the charming persuasiveness that would explain how Rustin achieved so much in such a short amount of time and as he slowly starts to experience a level of acceptance for his whole self, rather than handpicked parts, there’s a genuine poignancy to watching him crumble in front of us, a weight we can feel being lifted away.

While the scale of the big finale is hampered by budgetary constraints, it’s an effectively stirring endnote regardless, even if it might be Domingo’s hand pulling the strings.


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