Rustin – 55%

Reviewer Flickchart ranking: 2,395 / 5,361

Rustin brings to audiences the story of American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) and his role in organizing the march on Washington in 1963. Directed by George C. Wolfe who helmed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), Rustin shines a light on the inner workings of the Black civil rights leadership and the struggles Rustin has within the movement as a gay man in the early 60s. The film explores the professional relationships between Black leaders of the era and the various personalities, agendas, and egos at work. From politicians to the NAACP, union leaders, and individuals like Dr. King, Rustin must navigate a complex infrastructure in which he himself is seen as a potential liability. 

Though Wolfe’s treatment lacks anything to distinguishing it from the endless list of biopics that dominate fall and winter (just as superheroes populate our cinematic summers), the life of Bayard Rustin is a vital piece of American history, and it is a good that his tale is finally being told in film. Rustin employs a saturated color aesthetic, limited location settings, and creaky CGI execution when its vision exceeds its financial limitations, as well as somewhat abstract flashbacks when it is determined that more motivation or pain is necessary. Wolfe’s decisions do not detract from the sharing of Rustin’s life, but neither do they add complexity or depth to our understanding. By keeping all of Rustin’s struggles within tightly contained episodic events, it feels like his full humanness is relegated to make room for his usefulness.

Colman Domingo is a force, finally the leading man, and he takes full advantage of the complexity of Rustin, so far as the script allows. In Domingo we see that inspiration that burns within Rustin, caused by pain, passion, and the desire to fully love and to be accepted in wholeness. Glynn Turman turns in his usual powerful performance in the limited role of A. Philip Randolph, the trailblazing Black union leader, while Amel Ameen gives a reserved but effective rendition of Dr. King. Chris Rock struggles at times as NAACP head Roy Wilkins, whose most powerful and decisive moments never feel entirely effective.

Bayard Rustin had to struggle for respect within his community to achieve the ambitions driving him. He emerges here as a brave, defiant, compelling, inspiring, and mournful figure who was pushed into accepting the limitations of his time as he helped drive us all forward into a better future.

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