de facto film reviews 2 stars

With the cinematic awards season in full swing and the highly-contested 96th Academy Awards just weeks away, films like Rustin are getting timely releases and more than adequate media attention. What some might consider “Oscar bait,” usually a historical drama/period piece, biopic, or some combination thereof with big names attached to a fine-tuned script, Rustin certainly fits the bill with its spotlight on Colman Domingo’s portrayal of influential gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Although it has locked in the Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination, Rustin proves that an immaculate lead performance cannot always enhance an otherwise generic film.

Rustin - March on Washington

Courtesy of Netflix

Veteran Broadway and Hollywood director George C. Wolfe helms Rustin, which recounts the eponymous activist’s efforts to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. As a secretly homosexual man, Rustin must also combat allegations and other potential roadblocks by his opponents, even other Black activists, including Chris Rock’s Roy Wilkins and Jeffrey Wright’s Adam Clayton Powell. Among the many biopics showcasing Black civil rights leaders, it is refreshing to see Rustin’s central conflicts stem from within the Black community itself, with much of the infighting tied to the March’s improbable logistics, maintaining political reputations, and Rustin’s flamboyant, audacious personality, establishing much-needed layers to the plot and its players.

Rustin’s homosexuality, as mentioned, also plays a very relevant role in the overall story. Rustin and his partner, a white ally named Tom (Gus Halper), tease a fragile relationship early on, which becomes complicated with the introduction of Black NAACP field organizer Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey in an utterly fictional role), another secretly gay man. When Rustin and Taylor begin a romantic relationship in secret, tensions with Tom flare, and the threatened outing of their nature endangers Rustin’s political efforts. Unfortunately, while the personal drama adds another layer of complexity to the rising conflict and eventual resolution, it feels primarily superficial and singularly purposed because Wolfe and writers Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black fail to delve deeper into Rustin’s character.

Rustin - Bayard and MLK

Courtesy of Netflix

The filmmakers hint at more complex aspects of Rustin’s backstory and personality, including his shaky relationship with his parents and Quaker origins. However, the budding romance with Taylor and the March on Washington organization measures restrict any time for such much-needed character exploration. Pile on the strain between Rustin and his NAACP detractors and a rocky friendship with the rather dully portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), and there is quite a lot happening in Rustin—arguably, too much.

While Rustin’s exuberant speeches aimed to rally his cohorts and make the ambitious March on Washington a reality are riveting, alongside the man’s inspiring steps to justify and normalize his unique existence in a rigid, intolerant world, the remainder of Rustin, apart from just its overabundance of plot elements, feels like any other boilerplate biopic. From how cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler captures the story in stock frames to the plethora of background characters left by the wayside and its basic editing structure, Rustin resembles any general biopic before it. Domingo’s stellar acting is the true outlier.

Rustin - Capitol

Courtesy of Netflix

As evidenced by his multiple awards wins to date, Domingo’s Rustin is charming, bold, galvanizing, and engaging. The star carries the movie to much higher heights than it would otherwise soar to, and, sure, Branford Marsalis’s jazzy score uplifts the ’60s-set New York locality with grace and style, and the makeup and costuming is commendable. Still, in the vast sea of period biopics, Rustin demands something more meaningful in its production, something more profound in its characters—something that sets it apart beyond its top-billed actor’s exceptional performance.

Yes, Wolfe’s picture successfully pulls Bayard Rustin, the man, from the depths of relative obscurity compared to his more famous contemporaries and shares some of his real struggles. But while audiences will undoubtedly connect with the character, thanks mainly to Domingo’s passion, and further empathize with his organization’s goals, Rustin could do better to quiet the conversation about films like this one being “Oscar bait,” but it does not.

Rustin is now streaming on Netflix.