When “Rustin,” a film about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s spoken word with clarity and conviction, premiered a few weeks ago at the Telluride Film Festival, it was met with a rapturous reception, albeit on the polite side. Certainly, for some, there was the thrill of discovering the life of a man mostly ignored in the history books. But beneath this assessment was a question: Couldn’t this hectic life be conveyed with a little more messiness, a little less restraint?
“Rustin” may be a generic biopic, but that’s because its creators (including, notably, the production company Higher Ground, founded by Barack and Michelle Obama) are very interested in two numbers. The first is 250,000, the number of people estimated to have turned out for the March on Washington, the landmark 1963 rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The second number is nine, the months that passed between this peaceful protest and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These two events, the film argues, are inseparable.
Rustin led the way on Washington, and director George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and screenwriters Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black keep the film’s focus primarily on the organization, negotiations, and compromises it took to . a few hundred thousand “angelic rioters,” in Rustin’s words, on the National Mall. This approach means the film is full of exposition, along with lengthy monologues and very shocking speech. For better or for worse, “Rustin” seems destined to have a massive IMDb quotes page. Sometimes, it goes with the territory.
If there’s going to be plenty of talk (and we’re talking plenty of intensity), it’s good to have Colman Domingo on your team playing the title character. When we’re introduced to Rustin, he’s a dynamo, sleeves rolled up, tie askew, eyes blazing. If he’s in a room with King (played with quiet authority by Aml Ameen), Rustin is the one you notice first. Rustin is also, as he explains as a way to foreground both his activism and individuality, born Black but “also born gay.” He says it out loud, which is remarkable given his time period and setting.
Rustin was also a Quaker, a communist (at least for a time). accomplished singer and unknown to most Americans because, as openly gay (or as openly gay as he could be for the time), he couldn’t be the star that, say, King was. The film explores this marginalization—and Rustin’s conflicted feelings about it—to an extent. It also features a romance between Rustin and a closeted, married preacher (Johnny Ramey). While this subplot ties together Rustin’s dual battles for acceptance, it feels stale and unconvincing. “Teach me how not to be afraid,” the clergyman, a composite figure of many acquaintances, asks Rustin, a line emblematic of the film’s occasional inadequacy.
“Rustin” is on firmer ground when it details the creative spat that created the context that made the March on Washington possible, as well as the competing egos and interests that nearly doomed it. You’d need a 10-part limited series to really do all of this justice, but the film overcomes the complexity with a nimble shorthand, using the likes of Chris Rock (who portrays NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, an early antagonist) and Jeffrey Wright (as representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a constant thorn) to command the screen. Of course, every time they share a scene with the charismatic Domingo, there’s only one place you’ll be looking.
Rustin would probably like this movie, but not because it portrays him as a hero, which it does, sometimes with a heavy hand. (Wolf clearly admires him, filling March with adoring faces looking his way.) No, he probably would because, in our current age where divisiveness can breed apathy and despair, “Rustin” is a film about possibilities. Do you want to change the world? Gather some like-minded souls, roll up your sleeves and dream. Maybe this hopeful movie will come true.
Assessment: PG-13, for thematic material, some violence, sexual material, language including racial slurs, brief drug use and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Game: Now in limited edition. on Netflix November 17