Premiering at Telluride & the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its brief theatrical run, Rustin tells the true story of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a strategist and activist promoting nonviolent strategies for social change for over half a century. He’s best known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the platform for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin’s work was sometimes hampered by many considered controversial pasts, including membership in the Young Communist League; a three-year prison term for refusal to cooperate with the military on conscientious grounds; and his open homosexuality, including an arrest for lewd vagrancy. However, his work & his legacy has persevered into the modern age as he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
It should come as no surprise that the man who granted Rustin that award is also the man who is behind the production of the film: former President Barack Obama. Under his Higher Ground Productions banner, Rustin is the third Netflix feature film the Obamas have produced (Fatherhood & Worth before this) before its fourth feature, Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind, is released in December. Higher Ground has also produced multiple award winning documentaries for Netflix including Oscar Winner American Factory & Independent Spirit Award Winner Crip Camp.
The Obamas aren’t the only Oscar Winners to be associated with the film as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won Best Original Screenplay for the Gay rights biopic Milk back in 2009, co-wrote Rustin alongside “When They See Us” scribe Julian Breece. The film is directed by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom helmer George C. Wolfe, who guided that film to 2 Oscar wins and 5 nominations for Netflix in 2021.
Wolfe has brought along multiple stars from his SAG & Critics Choice nominated Ma Rainey ensemble, including Bayard Rustin himself, Coleman Domingo, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, & Michael Potts as Cleveland Robinson. The film’s deep roster of acting talent also includes Aml Ameen (“The Porter”, Red Tails) as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., CCH Pounder (“The Shield”) as Dr. Anna Hedgeman, Chris Rock (Dolemite Is My Name) as NAACP head Roy Wilkins, & Primetime Emmy & Golden Globe Winner Jeffrey Wright as Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
The strength of Rustin lies with its namesake; an exceptional & vibrant man performed exceptionally & vibrantly by Domingo, an underrated & overlooked actor whose range & magnetism in this film will catapult him up the ranks into more prominent roles in the future. Whenever he is on screen, he draws us in and lifts us up. His brashness & ratatat dialogue mixed with his striking looks commands every scene and forces the audience to take in the messages we need to hear.
The film’s pace & score seem to match the energy of Rustin himself; with a lightness & charm that’s usually not reminiscent of a 60s civil rights era story. Snappy & sappy all at the same time with a horn led backing arrangement and a tight runtime.
However, while George C. Wolfe is an exceptional theater presence, his direction is still a work in progress. With less than notable cinematography, stage play blocking, and soapy & speechifying performances at times, Wolfe leans more towards his theater direction than a more theatrical one. The film feels more akin to Netflix’s The Boys in the Band at minimum or The Trial of the Chicago 7 at its best; both directed by men who are getting their bearings at the helm of a film versus their previous lives in theater, screenwriting, or both.
However, one thing George C. Wolfe seems to be great at is collecting talented performers. Everywhere you looked in Ma Rainey and now around every corner in Rustin, you see an impressive actor lighting up the screen or anchoring the drama. His films are always sound of message and brimming with the best & brightest people that line up to work for him and his undeniable muses like August Wilson and now Bayard Rustin. You’ll never be bored or lost in a George C. Wolfe film, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Overall, Rustin is another successful film for the Obamas & Higher Ground Productions. Though it may lean less cinematic & more over-the-top, the energy, the messaging, & the performances will fill you up and fill you in. Colman Domingo puts the film on his back and never relents. He continues to impress audiences and he may impress voters come award season.
Watch Rustin on Netflix If You Like
- MLK FBI
- John Lewis: Good Trouble
- Ghosts of Mississippi
MVP of Rustin
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin
For many years, Colman Domingo has been a shape-shifting scene stealer. From indie projects like Zola & If Beale Street Could Talk to more high profile films like Candyman & the latest Transformers movie, Domingo shows that the spotlight is never too big or too small for him to make a huge impact. Now, with a prominent leading role that has Awards Season potential, Domingo raises his game once again. In Bayard Rustin, he finds the perfect harmony of charisma & pain that only allows love to get in the way of his ambitions. There is no one else who could have performed this role so admirably while going toe to toe with the rest of his impressive cast.
Colman Domingo and the exuberance & spirit of Bayard Rustin make for a magnificent combination. While the direction & cinematography might not leave you inspired, the cast & story might be enough to impress.