If you take a look at this films trailer, you can tell this was a film that is desperately trying to court the award-season crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, when I saw that Rustin was directed by George C. Wolfe, who did the fantastic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the film immediately went on my list as something to look out for. And for full transparency, I had no clue who Bayard Rustin was before I even saw the trailer, and while I feel the film does highlight an important figure in history, this may not be the best execution of the man’s story. This is a film about a man’s grand vision to pull off the impossible, and despite this being a landmark historical event, I feel the delivery missed the mark. While this is a biopic about Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), it is very much about only a small portion of the man’s life, basically just the short amount of time he had to put together a march on Washington DC in 1963 that would live on in infamy for the civil rights movement and the famous “I have a dream” speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I feel this is a bit of a disservice to the man who responsible for so much, especially when the film is called Rustin, but there is so much going on in this film that it should have been called something else. But before I get carried away, the biggest strength this film has is the terrific performance by Colman Domingo. He does a fantastic job at showing his passion for his beliefs as he pretty much controls every scene he’s in. There are a lot of speeches over the course of the film, maybe too many, but he delivers each with the conviction and the passion I’d imagine the civil rights leader had.
The great 100,000-man march was a civil rights march for jobs and freedom, and when it was pitched by Rustin, we saw how it was shot down and treated as though it would be an impossible task. Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) as the head of the NAACP wants nothing to do with Rustin and sees the march could only hurt their cause, and then there is Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), a politician who Rustin’s opponent who seems to object to Rustin simply because the man is a homosexual. It was nice seeing Chris Rock. This is one of those performances that reminded me just how good he can really be when he’s given the right material … but it is Jeffrey Wright who just shows up and commands every frame that he is on screen. Powell is pretty much the biggest combatant Rustin is up against, and when these two have their moments together the tension just shines, but unfortunately the film doesn’t have enough of those moments.
We only get moments of seeing Rustin getting his organization together to get funding and organize this march that will have people travelling from all ends of the country. This was the heart of the film, and what made this impossible task so remarkable, but not nearly enough time is spent seeing everyone organize this march. Instead, a majority of the film wanted to focus on Rustin’s love triangle between his assistant and a married man. The film loses its direction when it decides to focus on the life of being gay in 1963. Yeah, we understand Bayard had it rough being gay and black, but involving this love triangle just felt like a major distraction, and it’s more frustrating because it doesn’t go anywhere. That’s the biggest problem with the film: all sorts of ambitious storylines that come together, but they either go nowhere or they don’t feel fleshed out. For instance the friendship between Rustin and MLK Jr. I wanted to see more of their history, especially when a scandal about Rustin and MLK Jr. was threatened bring up a false affair between the two men. Then they have a moment of bringing in Medgar Evers, but he’s used as merely a throwaway character. This felt almost like a cinematic injustice. But then we get to the big day of the march, and we don’t even get to see the celebration or the famous speech. Sadly a lot of this film consists of a bunch of people gathered in one room to argue … I just don’t understand these choices. There’s a lot brought up, but the execution just misses the mark.
I feel like this film needed to be bigger and have a stronger narrative. I felt like I saw a film that was essentially a stage play, when it needed to be a grand spectacle. Where you expect to have some emotional payoff, there isn’t one. In real life this was a huge victory, but we barely get a whiff of that here. The bright side is that this film at least brings the name Bayard Rustin into the conversation, and perhaps it will get people to want to know more about the man and the time period and be inspired to make change in the world they live in. Rustin does have its merit and has some fantastic performances, but it’s not the strong award contender I expected it to be.