For a while there, I wondered if there was ever going to be a biopic on Bayard Rustin, the late Black activist who, despite being an integral member of the civil rights movement, rarely gets mentioned whenever that story is told on the big screen. Everybody knows about Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, etc. But wouldn’t you like to know more about the gay, Quaker-raised ex-Communist who was right there in the thick of it?
Thankfully, Rustin is here, produced by Netflix and directed by Broadway legend George C. Wolfe (who also directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Netflix). Wolfe has Rainey co-star Colman Domingo star as the flamboyant Rustin, who gleefully caused good trouble way before John Lewis came up with the term.
Although the confidante of Martin Luther King (played here by Aml Ameen) is down for the struggle, his out-and-proud antics predictably ruffle the feathers of conservative Black leaders like NAACP head Roy Wilkins (a subdued Chris Rock) and U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell (an oily-ass Jeffrey Wright). Wolfe begins with Powell thwarting Rustin’s plans to stage a protest at the Democratic Convention, with MLK leading the charge, when Powell threatens to leak in the press that Rustin and King may have something going on.
While Rustin did a lot of movie-worthy things in his life, Rustin mostly concentrates on how he rounded up his ol’ friend Martin and a bunch of young folks to organize the March on Washington. Domingo clearly has a blast as Rustin, who zestily fights for change while swatting away the haterade his stodgier colleagues bring to the table. The cast also includes veteran Black actors (Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald, CCH Pounder) you knew would show up as other key figures. It is kinda unfortunate that Wolfe keeps things spicy by drumming up some soap opera-ish conflict, with Rustin engaged in an illicit love triangle with his white male “assistant” (Gus Halper) and a Black man (Johnny Ramey) who is closeted, married and a preacher. (That guy is less of a character and more of a walking emblem of Black hypocrisy and repression.)
Despite some quick moments of man-on-man action, Rustin mostly plays it safe. (It’s almost like Wolfe was worried audiences might get scared off if the film exhibited too much angry, wig-snatching bite.) However, considering it begins with recreated, slo-mo images of Black people going through humiliating hell by white folks during peaceful protests, this is still quite possibly the jazziest civil-rights movie ever made. With Branford Marsalis providing the bopping, Blue Note Records-style soundtrack, Wolfe moves this thing along with a zippy rhythm. He refuses to wallow in the familiar, dire woefulness that’s usually included in films like these. Even when the story has to pause for a moment of intimate drama, it’s a brief pause. Once it gets going, both Rustin and Rustin never stop for a pity party.
Although Barack and Michelle Obama are proudly billed as executive producers (the former President gave Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013), Rustin has a lot of LGBTQIA+ voices both behind and in front of the camera. Both Domingo and Wolfe are openly gay, and so are screenwriters Julian Breece and the recently exonerated Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar writing for screenplay for that other gay-activist biopic Milk), as well as Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty).
There is something satisfying about watching a biopic about a gay Black man (with Netflix footing the bill!) that doesn’t seem condescending, mawkish or offensive, mainly because some of the people who worked on it are gay, Black men too. Rustin is another effective, entertaining example of what happens when you bring the right people in to tell a true story — their story — the right way.
“Rustin” is in theaters now and on Netflix Friday.