Rustin review | Colman Domingo lifts a rather passive biopic

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Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) unites Civil Rights organisers in an upbeat biopic. Here’s our Rustin review.

Rustin is a film that feels a long time coming. While we’ve seen some exceptional dramas about the Civil Rights movement in recent years, films like Till and Judas And The Black Messiah have tonally erred on the heavier side. Rustin, produced by Michelle and Barack Obama’s company, Higher Ground, looks to take a different approach in its retelling of the events leading up to the 1963 March on Washington, striking a much more upbeat, celebratory tone to accompany its larger-than-life lead character.

That character is Bayard Rustin, a hugely charismatic activist and organiser who, because of the homophobic attitudes of the time, proved hugely influential in the Civil Rights movement behind rather than in front of the cameras. Charting Rustin’s work from his split with Martin Luther King Jr in 1960 to the march itself, Rustin looks to shine a light on a figure who, especially in the UK, has been so far neglected in the telling of America’s 60s story.

Colman Domingo’s role as Rustin proves to be the film’s masterstroke. His previously untapped leading man charisma shines through at every turn, and he proves utterly believable as a man able to unite the conflicting viewpoints within the movement to pull off one of the most iconic moments in modern US history. While he’s on screen, there’s scarcely a dull moment, and since he’s on screen a lot, his performance does a lot to lift some of the film’s more technical blunders. We’re fully in the awards season stretch of the year by now, and with Rustin Domingo puts up a pretty compelling case for forming part of the conversation.

The cast around him, though hampered slightly by playing more familiar or more grounded characters opposite a genuine force of nature, mostly prove more than up to the task. Chris Rock, surprising in a very wiggy-looking crop of grey hair and a moustache, feels entirely miscast as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, but the rest of the supporting cast (Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen) flesh out the rest of the march organisers well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film around Domingo can’t help but feel a little rushed – the frenetic pace rarely gives emotional beats time to breathe, and all too often a problem is thrown up in one scene only to be immediately solved in the next, with little space for the characters to reckon with the monumental task they have before them. It’s not that the film should be more miserable (far from it – the more jubilant framing is one of the aspects of the film that works best), but the drama needs some shade to let its triumphant moments shine.  

The nugget of a really compelling idea glimmers through, though. The coming together of different ideas within the Civil Rights movement is a subject ripe for drama, if only it were given the space to develop. An early scene of Rustin attempting to diffuse tension between proponents of violent and nonviolent protest at a party sizzles with the sort of drama that could have formed the heart of the tale the film is trying to tell.

Instead, immediately after we’re told the movement is irrevocably divided, the action moves to a group of enthusiastic, smiling students brainstorming ideas for the march in a classroom. The party scene aside, division within the movement is all too often explained with heavy-handed exposition while the action on screen tells us the opposite.

After the frenetic success of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which earned Chadwick Boseman a deserved posthumous Oscar), George C Wolfe’s direction sadly doesn’t do much to lift Rustin’s biopic story above the conventional. An important story and Domingo’s excellent performance still make the film more than worth checking out. There’s a rousing, hugely inspiring film in here somewhere; it’s just a shame it seems to be in a bit of a hurry to get there.

Rustin is screening in select cinemas from 3rd November, and arrives on Netflix on the 17th November.

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