Review by Tatiana Miranda
With hits like Oppenheimer and Tetris and highly-anticipated movies like Priscilla and Maestro, 2023 is a big year for biopics. The Netflix film Rustin is another addition to that list. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground Productions, Rustin tells the story of Bayard Rustin, a gay Black civil rights activist who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
When most think of the March on Washington, they immediately remember Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While Rustin doesn't discredit King's involvement in the creation and outcome of the march, it instead focuses on the development of the march, which was spearheaded by Rustin. Even more so, though, the film focuses on Rustin's identity as a semi-openly gay man in the '60s.
Throughout the movie, he faces prejudice and criticism from those of his own race and others regarding his sexuality. Even though the movie follows his work in the civil rights movement, the conflicts of Rustin's sexuality are frequent. Because of this, Rustin is a queer liberation film, as well as a Black liberation one. Co-writers Julian Breece (known for the series When They See Us about the Central Park 5) and Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the film Milk) ensure Rustin's gayness is just as prevalent as his Blackness.
While it is a movie with lots of personality and filled with humor and heartfelt moments, Rustin does have its flaws — namely the performances. Colman Domingo leads after having starred in mainly supporting roles in shows and movies such as Euphoria and If Beale Street Could Talk. Unfortunately, in what should be an Oscar-worthy performance, his portrayal of Rustin comes across as a caricature of the influential figure.
Other performances, such as Chris Rock as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and Jeffrey Wright as U.S. representative Adam Clayton Powell, feel equally stagelike. Some of this might be a result of director George C. Wolfe's prominent work in theater. Yet, other roles, like Audra McDonald as activist Ella Baker and Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King, feel more realistic and less cartoonish.
Even with its shortcomings, Rustin is a powerful and moving film that gives voice to an otherwise forgotten hero. It is also an unflinching portrayal of the historical and modern problems that face non-white members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In a time when more and more civil rights leaders are being erased from textbooks, Rustin is a reminder of the instrumental work done by a then-controversial figure who deserves to be remembered.
Rustin screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.