Rustin review: Colman Domingo saves vital but undercooked biopic about gay civil rights hero

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in Netflix film Rustin

Colman Domingo’s heroic portrayal of legendary gay Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin saves Netflix’s sometimes times shaky, Dustin Lance Black co-written biopic Rustin – here’s our review.

As an intersectional historical drama, Rustin offers a much-needed reframing of the famed civil rights protest, 1963’s March on Washington, from the perspective of the architect buried by history’s homophobic lens – Bayard Rustin.

Fear the Walking Dead star Colman Domingo and Tony award-winning director George C Wolfe (who previously worked together on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) join forces to carve out a delicate portrait of this troubled political figure, who spent his life dedicated to the advancement of Black and LGBTQ+ rights.

Despite his tireless activism, it was ultimately Rustin’s identity as a gay man that ensured he was written out of the history books. Thirty-five years after his death, in 2013, President Obama (whose serves as executive producer alongside Michelle Obama) posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Then, in 2020, he was pardoned for his 1953 criminal conviction for consensual gay sex.

After 60 years, Rustin’s story is finally reaching mainstream audiences as screenwriters Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black make a valiant effort to highlight Rustin’s instrumental role in the largest scale peaceful protest seen on US soil, which eventually led to the advent of the The Civil Rights Act in 1964.

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What’s more, it shares an unflinching approach to the violent tactics used by the oppressor and the unique social ostracisation of LGBTQ+ Black people, who had their voices stifled by every corner of society.

Domingo effortlessly captures Rustin’s steadfast moral compass, internal anguish and relentless political fervour. The Emmy winner infuses a weary longing into his performance that poignantly conveys the constant battle Rustin was waging on all sides to have his strategic expertise valued.

Colman Domingo stars as Bayard Rustin. (Netflix)
Colman Domingo stars as Bayard Rustin in Rustin. (Netflix)

Elsewhere, Rustin offers a fascinating insight into Martin Luther King’s (Aml Ameen) friendship and hard-fought solidarity with Rustin, despite members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) such as Roy Wilkins (jarringly portrayed by Chris Rock) trying their best to undermine him.

Other standout performances come from Audra McDonald, who takes full advantage of her short time on screen as human rights activist Ella Baker, while Glynn Turman delivers a powerful turn as civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph.

Rustin offers a fresh perspective to the 20th century US Black civil rights movement by shedding light on the struggle of LGBTQ+ people within it, and refusing to shy away from Rustin’s personal love affairs with Tom (Gus Halper) and Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey).

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin (L) with Johnny Ramey as partner Elias (R). (Netflix)
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin (L) with Johnny Ramey as partner Elias (R). (Netflix)

In essence, the film serves its purpose by offering an introduction to an overlooked political figure most still know little or nothing about.

Certainly, after Netflix’s heavily criticised (but nevertheless Oscar-nominated) Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde so woefully dropped the ball, this latest historical retelling is a welcome improvement.

However, there are moments that feel underwhelming or hurriedly plastered together. Rustin‘s is at its strongest when tackling the importance of cross-community solidarity and “freedom and justice for all” but some ideas get lost in the mix.

For example, the place of Black women in the movement doesn’t feel fully fleshed or satisfactorily resolved, although characters such civil rights advocate Dr Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) begin the conversation.

The issue of violence within the police – under an even greater spotlight since the Black Lives Matte Movement gained momentum in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder – also scratches the surface but doesn’t dive in further.

And the finale reaches a somewhat lacklustre crescendo, perhaps due to budgetary constraints. Although joyous, it doesn’t fully translate the majestic achievement of gathering 250,000 people at the heart of Washington DC.

All this to say, Rustin is a worthy addition to the growing corpus of films platforming forgotten figures in history but, in this instance, it could have pushed the envelope further to truly make its mark.

Rustin is now in cinemas. It arrives on Netflix on 17 November, 2023.