RUSTIN | USA | 2023 | 106m | English
Starring: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald
Directed By: George C. Wolfe
The architect of 1963’s momentous March on Washington, Bayard Rustin was one of the greatest activists and organizers the world has ever known. He challenged authority, never apologized for who he was, what he believed, or who he desired. And he did not back down. He made history, and in turn, he was forgotten. Directed by DGA Award and five-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe and starring Emmy Award winner Colman Domingo, Rustin shines a long overdue spotlight on the extraordinary man who, alongside giants like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ella Baker, dared to imagine a different world, and inspired a movement in a march toward freedom. Produced by Academy Award winner Bruce Cohen, Higher Ground's Tonia Davis and George C. Wolfe, the film features an all-star cast including Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Johnny Ramey, Michael Potts, with Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 3.5 out of 5
Rustin gives the spotlight to American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a rousing biopic from director George C. Wolfe, that is brought to life by a breathtaking and one of the year’s best performances from Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin.
It comes as no surprise that Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground is one of the driving forces behind George C. Wolfe’s newest film, Rustin, which tells the story of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s involvement in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington. It’s a story that aligns perfectly with the company’s values and celebrates Rustin who Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to during his presidency, and gives the spotlight to one of the most influential civil rights activists who largely worked behind the scenes, but made his mark on American history nonetheless. Wolfe’s film has a great story to tell, and while it does not break the biopic mold, Colman Domingo’s inspiring lead performance makes the film a must watch and will be a force to be reckoned with this awards season.
Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was an instrumental force in organizing the 1963 March on Washington which featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, but his efforts were not without struggle. Rustin faced not only racism while trying to organize the event, but also homophobia from members of the African American community as he fought to change the course of civil rights history.
If there is one thing that audiences are going to be talking about after watching Rustin, it is Colman Domingo’s electrifying performance as Bayard Rustin. It is clear why Domingo was the actor that Wolfe envisioned in the role, because it is one of those performances that lights up the screen and makes a film. From the second he appears on screen, Domingo has an infectious energy that allows you to be swept away by the film, which is only amplified by Branford Marsalis’s jazz infused musical score which matches Domingo’s energy and captures the spirit of Rustin with every melody. There is a passion and gravitas that Domingo captures within Rustin that brings to life this historic activist with a grand elegance, that armed with the film’s script full of rich, theatrical dialogue, makes for a role of a lifetime for Domingo. While many of his scenes see Rustin drumming up support for the March on Washington with his smooth, charismatic presence that lights up the screen, there are far more dramatic moments that truly allow Domingo to soar. In these quieter and more dramatic moments, Domingo unleashes a raw emotionality that captures the fragility of the human heart as Rustin tries to find balance between his personal life and the cause he has devoted himself to. It’s nothing short of a showstopping performance that without question will catapult Domingo to an Academy Award nomination for a truly sensational performance.
With the film focused on Domingo’s performance, there is little time for the supporting cast to make a splash on screen, despite the talent it has. Each supporting cast member has a scene or two opposite Domingo, and while each actor is great in their roles, the screenplay does not devote time to these characters to allow them to make an impression on the audience. It’s a double edged sword, as it allows Domingo to tower over the film as he should, but it sadly will let audiences forget about some truly stellar performances, especially from Audra McDonald and Jeffrey Wright who are both excellent in their respective scenes.
Wolfe has a signature style to his films: they feel like stage plays. This always leads to a birlliant script full of memorable dialogue for the actors to sink their teeth into, as there is with Rustin. While his style has worked for more intimately set films like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it feels out of place in Rustin. There are scenes that feel akin to a stage play where Wolfe’s style works, but the larger scale of this story and the various players involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington makes the film lose that cinematic quality to the historic event as it is too big for a stage play approach to the material. There is no denying that Wolfe’s direction is strong throughout the film, especially with the choice to not show the most iconic moments of the 1963 March on Washington to ensure that Rustin is never overshadowed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his own film, but it feels like the film overall just missed out on being truly excellent. At the end of the day, it's a good film but the stage-like style and the traditional biopic structuring prevents it from being a truly memorable biopic outside of Domingo’s performance.
There are powerful films that move audiences with the sheer impact the story it tells, and there is no denying that Rustin is one of those films. Not only is it sure to have Colman Domingo marching towards a well deserved Academy Award nomination for his spectacular performance as Bayard Rustin, it helps to immortalize one of the most important civil rights activists in American history. Emotionally moving from start to finish, George C. Wolfe’s latest film captures the organization of a monumental moment in history thanks to a poignant script and an outstanding musical score from Branford Marsalis, but it is the amazing performance by Colman Domingo that makes Rustin a rousing biopic that will inspire audiences.