With “Rustin,” the civil rights-era biopic machine has finally churned out a movie about Bayard Rustin, the openly gay activist who architected the 1963 March on Washington. He is not as well-known as many others of that era — I certainly didn’t learn about Rustin in all those February Black History Month lessons I got in grade school — and the speculation has always been that his sexuality had something to do with his relative obscurity.
Director George C. Wolfe wants to rectify this absence, to give the late civil rights activist the front-and-center attention he deserves. Assisting him are Barack and Michelle Obama, who produced this Netflix release, and Colman Domingo, who gives a big, boisterous, hilarious, and multifaceted performance as Rustin. Word on the street when this played at the Toronto International Film Festival was that Domingo would be an Oscar darling come nomination time. This is certainly the kind of role that’s catnip for the Academy — plus, it’s a damn good performance that deserves accolades.
As with most biopics about this era, Domingo is surrounded by a motley crew of familiar actors in supporting roles. Though the casting isn’t as outrageous as an earlier film Domingo appeared in, 2013′s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (in which Jane Fonda played Nancy Reagan and John Cusack played Nixon), it’s still bound to raise an eyebrow or two.
For example, Chris Rock stars as Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP and an antagonist of Rustin’s. He appears in scenes alongside veterans of stage and screen such as Glynn Turman and CCH Pounder, who play prominent civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Anna Hedgeman, respectively. I thought Rock did a good job, though I admit it took a minute to get used to him as a villain, even a temporary one. Give him a chance to win you over.
As Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,the first Black Congressman to represent New York in the House, Jeffrey Wright gives the most memorable supporting performance. No stranger to the civil rights biopic (he played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2001′s “Boycott”), Wright drips with equal parts venom and charm. Powell is disgusted by Rustin’s refusal to hide in the closet and doesn’t want his involvement in the proposed march. He threatens to spread a rumor that Rustin and Dr. King (portrayed here by Aml Ameen), who’ve shared a very close friendship since they first met, are lovers.
“He’s not my type,” says Rustin drolly, wielding his cigarette as punctuation in a manner that would make Bette Davis proud. In fact, he’s dating a white activist named Tom (Gus Halper).
Having an openly gay director and lead actor ensures that “Rustin” isn’t going to downplay its subject’s sexuality and romantic entanglements, nor will it make him into some kind of martyr. The screenplay by openly gay Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (2008′s “Milk”) and Julian Breece (whose credits include the 2019 miniseries “When They See Us”) focuses on the intersection of Blackness and queerness, and how the latter was seen as having the potential to weaken Black activism.
The film also uses Dr. Hedgeman to express, in passing, her real-life concern that organizers of the March on Washington did not intend to have any women speakers despite the fact that women were doing much of the work to plan it.
Wolfe, who in 2020 also directed August Wilson’s period piece play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is ably assisted behind the camera by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, who bathes the film in an otherworldly glow, and editor Andrew Mondshein, who keeps scenes moving at a swift pace. Tying it all together is an excellent jazzy and propulsive score by Branford Marsalis.
As for the staging of the March on Washington: It’s well done, but it could have run longer. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s surprise cameo as Mahalia Jackson is a major highlight.
Enough cannot be said about Domingo, a recognizable character actor in shows like “Euphoria” who has finally been given his moment to shine in the lead. (His upcoming movie “Sing Sing” is an even bigger showcase for his talents.) This is a star-making performance, filled with moments of high comedy and tense drama; he nails every scene.
Despite the fine acting, “Rustin” is still a standard-issue biopic that traffics in the expected tropes. It’s the film’s perspective that elevates it, as no major movie has witnessed this era through the eyes of a gay man. I did find myself wishing it were a bit grittier; there’s a level of optimism flowing through the film that threatens to dilute some of its darker elements.
Directed by George C. Wolfe. Written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black. Starring Colman Domingo, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder, Aml Ameen, Gus Halper. At Landmark Kendall Square. On Netflix Nov. 17. 106 min. PG-13 (racial slurs, violence, mild sex scenes)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.