There’s no denying Colman Domingo gives in “Rustin” a performance most will dismissively term “Oscar bait.” But Domingo’s work, calibrated across his every breath and movement as eponymous and unsung Civil Rights-era hero Bayard Rustin, makes a strong case for that descriptor’s non-pejorative use. He’s mesmerizing. That was to be expected, though. What is surprising are the number of things to appreciate about the movie besides Domingo. From a Sorkinese-fluent script by Oscar-winning “Milk” scribe Dustin Lance Black and a stellar ensemble to Tobias Schliessler’s photography and Andrew Mondshein’s editing, “Rustin” is an electric piece of filmmaking that somehow manages to stylistically match the energy of its central performance.

Rustin must wage a battle on two fronts, combatting not only the racism that structurally pervades mid-century America but also the sexual politics that make him a pariah among his ostensible allies in the civil rights struggle. In a 1960-set prologue, he’s preparing to mobilize a demonstration in Los Angeles at the Democratic National Convention when close friend Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) sidelines him for fear of jilted congressman Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) spreading a rumor about the two being lovers. Like other personalities we meet, Powell would rather derail the fight for equality than support one in which he isn’t participating as a chief powerbroker.

Three years later, Rustin is living in the shadows as a means of personal survival and consequence of an atrophied career. Men with half his talent and charisma appear on television and tiptoe around the Kennedy administration, prioritizing patronage over substantive, widespread change. Even those in Rustin’s corner prefer gradualism to his firebrand activism.

Following the notorious 1963 Birmingham riot, he sees no way forward but to repair his friendship with King and together pressure the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), to endorse a march of unprecedented scale on the nation’s capital. The movement’s official stewards, however, are reluctant to make a gay former communist the face of a potentially historic moment – even though the man in question happens to be the only person with the requisite skill and vision to pull an event like this off in just eight weeks.

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Rustin (2023) Movie Review
Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman in Rustin (2023)

As he races against the clock to achieve the seemingly impossible, Rustin must conceal a budding romance with a pastor on the board of the NAACP (Johnny Ramey) and dodge slander from both his cause’s enemies and proponents. “Rustin” soars between the granular details of political organization. As the final shot will remind you, this is a movie about process and doing the work. But by no means should that suggest it’s a chore.

Clearly a passionate historian, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” director George C. Wolfe transforms debates over strategy into visual and linguistic jazz. Logistical concerns regarding the protest’s duration, to name one example, play like rhythmically unique musical setpieces. The movie’s occasional leaning on comically clunky exposition is made palatable by the hyperrealistic and old-fashionedly sincere tone Wolfe embraces at the outset. For all the film’s deliberate artifice, though, “Rustin” never loses sight of its larger-than-life characters’ humanity. “This isn’t a series of facts,” Wolfe has been quoted saying. “This happened to people.”

2023 has seen its share of biopics; “Rustin” is easily one of the best. As opposed to “Oppenheimer,” the film allows its scenes to breathe and immerse us in the specificities of the business at hand without ever sacrificing the pacing for which Christopher Nolan’s epic has been celebrated (this is also a more thoughtfully compositioned and visually varied piece of work). It channels the freneticism of classical Hollywood to stronger effect than “Maestro,” and it profiles a complicated personality with greater insight than “Nyad.”

In fact, the film’s closing shot – showing the person underneath the legend, isolatedly reckoning with their achievement – succeeds precisely where the final moments of “Nyad,” a jubilant display of public admiration recreated from news footage, fail. The unanimous praise received by Colman Domingo, though very much deserved, has neglected to mention the film’s overall quality and undersold strong supporting turns from Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, and Glynn Turman. Anyone who bemoans the existence of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is unlikely to enjoy what “Rustin” has to offer, but those who know better than to conflate “old-fashioned” with “uninspired” will discover an intimate, pulsating dramatization of a subject often communicated via bullet point. 

★★★★

Read More: Everything Coming To Netflix in December 2023

Rustin (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Rustin (2023) Movie: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald
Rustin (2023) Movie Genre: Drama/Biography, Runtime: 1h 48m
Where to watch Rustin

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