TIFF REVIEW – ‘Rustin’ soars on the shoulders of Colman Domingo

A long overdue biopic finally arrives in the form of Rustin, the story of the brilliant and often overlooked architect of the 1963 March on Washington. The film aims to shed light on Rustin’s significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while exploring his complex identity as a Black gay man in mid-20th century America. While the film has its flaws, Colman Domingo’s powerhouse performance as the titular figure stands out as the film’s most compelling aspect and one destined for an Oscar nomination.

Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Bayard Rustin is nothing short of mesmerising. From the moment he appears on screen, Domingo commands attention with his charisma, depth, and emotional range. He embodies Rustin’s intelligence, wit, and indomitable spirit with remarkable authenticity. Domingo’s nuanced performance captures the multifaceted nature of Rustin’s personality – his eloquence and strategic brilliance, as well as his vulnerability and struggles with personal and societal challenges.

One of the film’s strengths is how it showcases Rustin’s pivotal role in organizing the March on Washington. Domingo’s portrayal brings to life the sheer magnitude of Rustin’s efforts, from logistical planning to his ability to inspire and mobilize others. His interactions with other key figures in the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. (André Holland), are particularly compelling. These scenes highlight Rustin’s indispensable contributions while also delving into the tensions and complexities within the movement. Domingo’s interactions with Holland’s King are charged with both camaraderie and underlying tension, reflecting the real-life complexities of their relationship.

Despite the strong performances, Rustin is not without its flaws. The film’s pacing is uneven, with certain segments feeling rushed while others drag on. This inconsistency detracts from the overall impact of the narrative, making it difficult for the audience to remain fully engaged throughout the film’s runtime. Written by Julian Breece and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, the script attempts to cover too much ground. In doing so, it sometimes sacrifices depth for breadth. As a result, some of the film’s themes and historical contexts are not as fully explored as they could be.

The film’s direction by George C. Wolfe is solid but lacks the boldness and innovation that might have elevated the material like his work in 2018’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Wolfe’s approach is largely conventional, sticking to biopic tropes without taking significant risks. While this method ensures that the story is accessible and coherent, it also means that the film occasionally feels formulaic. The direction, while solid, does not always match the dynamism of Domingo’s performance, creating a slight disconnect between the film’s narrative and its central character.

Visually, Rustin is well-crafted, with effective period details that transport viewers to the 1960s. The cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler captures the era’s look and feel, with a particular emphasis on the contrasts between the public grandeur of the Civil Rights Movement and the private, often harsh realities faced by its leaders. The film’s production design and costumes are also noteworthy, contributing to the film’s authentic atmosphere.

One of the most poignant aspects of Rustin is its exploration of Rustin’s identity as a gay man. The film does not shy away from portraying the discrimination and prejudice he faced, both from society at large and within the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a gay man himself, Domingo’s deeply personal performance powerfully conveys Rustin’s resilience in the face of these challenges, as well as his determination to live authentically. These moments are among the film’s most moving, providing a deeper understanding of Rustin’s personal struggles and triumphs.

However, while the film deserves credit for addressing Rustin’s sexuality, it sometimes falls into the trap of oversimplifying his complex experiences. The screenplay tends to present Rustin’s personal and professional challenges in a somewhat binary manner, lacking the nuanced exploration that a figure of his complexity warrants. This simplification occasionally undermines the film’s attempt to fully honour Rustin’s legacy and the multifaceted nature of his contributions.

Ultimately, Rustin is a film that shines brightest when it focuses on its central character, brought to life with extraordinary skill by Domingo. His nomination-worthy performance alone makes the film worth watching, providing a powerful and moving portrayal of a historical figure who has long been underappreciated. While the film’s pacing and narrative structure may falter at times, Domingo’s presence ensures that it remains compelling and impactful.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, CCH Pounder, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Director: George C. Wolfe
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Tonia Davis, George C. Wolfe
Screenplay: Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production Design: Mark Ricker
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Music: Branford Marsalis
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 17th November 2023 (Netflix)

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