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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

FILM REVIEW: Rustin (NewFest; Netflix)

Colman Domingo shines in this biopic of the late civil rights activist.


When asked about key figures of the civil rights movement, there are many great names and people that come to mind. One that doesn't come up as often is Bayard Rustin, who was an inspirational and instrumental figure in organizing the movement through grassroots efforts and a focus on peaceful, anti-violence tactics. The biopic Rustin is trying to remedy that, by showcasing just how important Rustin was to the movement, and how unabashedly queer he lived. While the movie may not break ground in terms of the biopic structure, at its center is an electrifying performance that allows the material to soar and sit among the annals of great biopics.

Playing History

Portraying a historical figure is never an easy task, but director George C. Wolfe has assembled a cast of truly terrific actors who all turn in magnificent performances. Aml Ameen is fantastic as Martin Luther King Jr., filling him with a wiseness that belies his age and experience. His performance is never over the top, instead imbuing his King with a remarkable realness and simplicity that is effecting. Also turning in outstanding supporting performances are Audra McDonald and CCH Pounder as Ella Baker and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, respectively. Both ladies are given moments to shine, and have remarkable chemistry with Domingo's Bayard. Their ability to layer so much of a character into brief scenes and moments is a testament to both of their skills as actors.

There has already been a lot of Oscar buzz around his performance, and it is rightfully being lauded.

Then there is Colman Domingo as the titular Bayard Rustin. To say it is a role he was born to play would be an understatement. He fully inhabits and embodies Rustin, making him charming, specific, flawed, and headstrong. His physicality is terrific, allowing for nuanced subtleties that are really breathtaking. His accent work is fantastic, the way he conveys emotions through the slightest changes in his face is remarkable, and he brings a joy to playing this character that is electrifying and heightens all of the performances around him. There has already been a lot of Oscar buzz around his performance, and it is rightfully being lauded.

A scene from Rustin.
Colman Domingo walking up to accept all the awards next awards season.

A Good Biopic

Not all biopics are created equal, some are very bad (I'm looking at you Blonde!), while Rustin is very good. While it doesn't break the mold in terms of biopics, it smartly focuses on the time frame leading up to the 1963 March on Washington, while occasionally showcasing earlier events for frame of reference. The audience is able to focus on the individual interactions between characters, and not have to constantly play catch up with what time period we might be in, or miss moments that get rushed through in favor of larger events. We're also able to get a better grasp of who Rustin was, and how he unapologetically lived as a queer, black man in the 1950's and 60's.

Showing and acknowledging that our queer ancestors were not afraid, and at some points risked everything to live truly authentic lives is something to inspire our current generation...

It is interesting to see a depiction like this, and to know that it was mostly accurate, as a fair amount of representative media about this time period showcases how people were forced to stay closeted. Showing and acknowledging that our queer ancestors were not afraid, and at some points risked everything to live truly authentic lives is something to inspire our current generation, in a time when we are trying to be brushed aside, or pushed back in the closet. Rustin is not only an important film in the acknowledgement of an influential black and queer figure of history, but also as a reminder to people everywhere that the greatest strength comes from us living authentically and openly.


Rustin premieres on Netflix on November 3rd, 2023.

It was reviewed as the Opening Night film of the 35th Annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

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