Director: George C. Wolfe
Writers: Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black
Stars: Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen
Synopsis: Activist Bayard Rustin faces racism and homophobia as he helps change the course of Civil Rights history by orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington.
The biopic wants to show the roundedness of a person, often bringing the legend back into human form. A biopic used to cover a wide swath of a person’s life. It made them bloated, sentimental, and often pulled in as many directions as possible. Many more modern biopics choose a singular aspect of a person’s life or legacy. There are some exceptions, but most, including Rustin, fit into this mode. In the case of Rustin, it’s a bit to the detriment of the film.
As a largely unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) is an unknown. His life hasn’t been bullet pointed in American history textbooks and so there’s a lot to catch up on. The film does fine in peppering in bits of Rustin’s life, but fails the “show don’t tell” rule of storytelling. There are flashbacks and they are powerful, but they’re snapshots and not the whole picture. It feels like we’re playing catch up the whole time.
Yet, the screenplay, written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black (this being his third queer historical biopic) is packed with tenderness. The writers balance the outright racism that Rustin faces alongside his colleagues in the movement with the homophobia imposed on Rustin by both members of the movement and the outside world. Rustin lives his life as an openly gay man, which pushes his personal life into something that can be seen as unseemly.
Director George C. Wolfe handles some scenes of Rustin’s private life like a seedy melodrama from the era of the Hays Code; lots of stolen glances, dark shadows, and cigarettes suggestively brushing lips, but a pair of scenes take that idea in a couple of different directions. The first is as Rustin and his new crush Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) sit in a bar and get to know each other. When Taylor makes an affectionate gesture to Rustin, he flinches a little and Rustin assuages him because we and Taylor didn’t realize the two men were in a gay bar, surrounded by men who just want a place to be themselves. The sequence ends with a terrific chaste kiss that could have come from any romantic comedy.
The other scene is the previous scene’s more explicit companion. Wolfe, cinematographer Tobias Schliesser, and editor Andrew Mondshein craft an interesting contrast to what came before. We see Rustin as he takes in Taylor’s storefront preacher riling up his congregation, mixed with a love scene between the two men in a darkened room, their hands groping and tearing at clothing to get at the skin beneath. The thing that removes the exploitative nature in the sexuality contrasting religion, is that in his sermon Taylor acknowledges Rustin and their place with each other as he echoes some of Rustin’s words from the first night they had at the bar. The scene is invigorating and far too short.
These scenes, and frankly the entire film, is owed to the dynamic and incredible lead performance of Colman Domingo. As a character actor he has had some indelible roles, but here as a lead, Domingo shows the depth he can bring to a character and especially a character as charismatic as Rustin. He excels at the blustery speeches, the confrontational arguments, and the emotional pleas, but it’s in his expressions that Domingo slips into perfection. He has the ability to bring some microexpressions, the slight slips of Rustin’s mask, into the forefront of the emotion he’s playing. It’s a captivating performance.
The performance of Colman Domingo really carries the film. Rustin is a biopic of a person who needs more recognition for his accomplishments, but a film that isn’t breaking the rules that Rustin himself did. It’s a very safe type of film, but an enjoyable and uplifting one to watch. It’s a moving story that will hopefully spur more interest in the historical figures who moved, shook, and changed the world amongst all those straight, cis-gendered men.