Starring: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Aml Ameen, Gynn Turman, Gus Halper
Director: George C. Wolfe
Bayard Rustin was a prominent Civil Rights leader in the US during the mid-twentieth century. Because he was gay, he often worked behind the scenes as an organiser of some of the biggest moments in the Movement’s history, but he is recognised today as one of the most instrumental figures during the period. Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2003 (who serves as an executive producer on this film alongside his wife, Michelle), Rustin is the latest figure of American black history to receive the biopic treatment by director George C. Wolfe, following his widely acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
In the early 1960s, Bayard (Domingo – Selma, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) has been working tirelessly on campaigns to end segregation. His friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Ameen – Kidulthood, Sense8) goes way back, but they part ways following a disagreement that leaves Rustin estranged from the Movement for several years. However, with President Kennedy in office aligning himself with the cause, he soon realises that this is the moment to bring all factions together in one crowning moment, which would become the March on Washington in 1963.
Domingo is absolutely superb in the titular role, assuming his mannerisms with astute attention to detail. The figure is extremely likeable and you can absolutely see how he was able to win over so many people to the cause he was campaigning for. Domingo is the beating heart of this film and it’s wonderful to see a widely popular supporting actor finally having his moment in the limelight.
With a screenplay by two behemoths of activist cinema (Julian Breece – When They See Us & Dustin Lance Black – Milk, When We Rise), Wolfe has found a brilliant balance that equates the cause of Civil Rights and Gay Rights. With lines like “The day I was born black was also the day I was born homosexual”, a real effort has been made not just to include Rustin’s sexuality, but also to demonstrate how it was as important a motivation for him as was his race. And, despite the illegality of it, he was openly gay and in a relationship with Tom Kahn (Halper).
The film, however, has two major problems. Firstly, the primary purpose of any biopic is to tell the story of its historical subject and educate its audience about why they should be remembered. While Rustin does manage to adeptly show this key moment in the activist’s life, it really doesn’t succeed in revealing who this man was and why he was already a figure within the Movement. There is a general assumption from the opening scene that we already know who he is, but for audiences outside the US, this simply isn’t the case. Subsequently, we’re left playing catch-up throughout the film, but we’re never really revealed enough within the dialogue to get us up to speed.
Secondly, the film is building toward the March on Washington, which we all know is going to be the movie’s climax. But when it arrives, we only see a small segment of it, spluttering out like a fire with wet wood. Its crowning moment should be King’s momentous speech, but it feels like the director has decided that because that speech wasn’t delivered by Rustin, it would be distracting from his narrative arc. But we do want to see it. Instead we only hear its closing lines, leaving the whole segment feeling anticlimactic and a somewhat flat.
It’s clear that Bayard Rustin is a figure worthy of the biopic treatment, but the film has ended up an American movie for an American audience that hasn’t translated well to an international one. Domingo is superb in the role – expect an Oscar-nomination, for sure – but the film doesn’t quite manage to translate Rustin’s legacy in a way that will make him live on beyond American borders.
UK Release: Out now to watch on Netflix