According to Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s certainly a true statement, though that bend needs good people to help put the pressure on. One such man was Bayard Rustin, whose impact on the Civil Rights Movement has somewhat been lost to history. At least, it has until now, as Rustin seeks to finally tell this untold story. Impressively, this isn’t your standard biopic, opting for a lighter touch. There’s tragedy to be found, but there’s also a spring in its step, making for one of the more pleasant surprises at the Telluride Film Festival.
Rustin is buoyed by a phenomenal Colman Domingo in the title role, but everything about this film is more fun and livelier than you’d expect. In doing so, the movie allows history to come alive in an engaging manner than more biopics should opt for. By making you smile while also making you think, you’re inspired. Watching Rustin will make you want to do your part to help keep bending that arc towards justice.
This is the story of how Bayard Rustin (Colman) organized the 1963 March on Washington. A key player in the movement for years and a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), Rustin’s homosexuality kept him from being fully embraced. Men like Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) of the NAACP and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) saw him as a liability, even as others like A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) supported him. He was not a man to be underestimated, however, and when he was inspired to craft this march, there was no stopping him.
We see Rustin’s organization skills, inspiring a group to do incredible work, while also getting glimpses at his personal life. That includes his assistant and occasional lover Tom (Gus Halper), as well as Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey). Through it all, you get a clear sense of how essential he was to where we are today, even as his impact was minimized, right up until modern times, well after his death, when he posthumously received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Colman Domingo deserves an Oscar nomination for the finest work of his career so far. He brings out the life and the passion of Rustin in a way that really gives you a sense of the man. Domingo is exceptional and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Chris Rock and Jeffrey Wright are relishing antagonistic roles, while Glynn Turman is always a welcome presence. Aml Ameen doesn’t get quick enough to do as MLK, though he has the spirit of the man, for sure. Gus Halper and Johnny Ramey get some of the best scenes with Domingo, which boosts their work as well. Supporting players also include Bill Irwin, Lilli Kay, Audra McDonald, Michael Potts, CCH Pounder and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, among others.
Director George C. Wolfe makes sure you never get caught up the generic biopic here. Working from a script by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, Wolfe gets you hyped up for political engagement. Of course, having that performance from Domingo goes a long way, but the writing and direction are right there with him. Plus, being only 99 minutes is clutch, as there’s no room for anything except the best bits. Kudos there for that choice.
Rustin is a Telluride highlight and a probable Academy Award contender for Netflix. Instead of giving us something that felt like homework, they brought something worth celebrating to the festival. The man will finally get his cinematic due, with the film likely to get more than its fair share of acclaim as well. This is a biopic done very right.