‘On the day that I was born black, I was also born a homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not…’
The purpose of any film first and foremost should be entertainment. If you can shine a light on injustice along the way then that’s all well and good but a bad film is a bad film regardless of how admirable its message is (see: Don’t Look Up). Well, Rustin is not a bad film, it’s a competent and respectful retelling of a landmark moment in American history, but it’s also risk-averse and derivative…
Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) was a black, homosexual activist during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Due to his sexuality, he faced discrimination not only from white Americans but from his own people as well. Despite this, he overcame prejudice to be one of the key figures behind the pivotal 1963 march on Washington that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act 9 months later. The film features various other historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameed) and Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock). However, only Jeffrey Wright as senator and agitator Adam Clayton Powell leaves any lasting impression in what is little more than a cameo.
I’d never even heard of Rustin until Domingo received a Best Actor nod at this year’s Oscars and while his performance is admittedly excellent, I can see why the picture itself passed me by first time around. Director George C. Wolfe never really evokes the scale of injustice that the black community were facing at the time of the march, nor does he spend enough time at the march itself. Instead, we get 90 minutes of build-up without a satisfying conclusion.
While Bayard Rustin was obviously a key figure in the civil rights struggle, and it is important that such figures are remembered for all that they achieved, Rustin is a toothless and safe biopic that has Oscar bait written all over it. Skip it.