Review: Colman Domingo wears his role in 'Rustin' like a second skin

All hail the great Colman Domingo.

November 3, 2023, 4:05 AM
Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
David Lee/Netflix

All hail the great Colman Domingo for his thrilling tour de force as Bayard Rustin, the unsung (until now) hero of the Civil Rights Movement, who made history by organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom while standing in the shadow of Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen) as he uttered those four momentous words, "I have a dream."

Director George C. Wolfe ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") had a dream to put Rustin front and center in a movie. And now, with the help of producers Barack and Michelle Obama, he has. "Rustin," in theaters ahead of its Nov. 17 global debut on Netflix, demands to be seen.

Critics say the film is hampered by a low budget, a few shaky casting choices (a distracting turn from Chris Rock as NAACP head Roy Wilkins) and a script by Julian Breece ("When They See Us") and Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") that sloganeers when it needs to simply breathe. They're not wrong. But through Domingo's enthralling empathy, "Rustin" doesn't miss a beat.

PHOTO: Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
David Lee/Netflix

A lifelong advocate for nonviolence, the Quaker-raised, openly gay Rustin -- admitting to communist sympathies -- was arrested for protesting World War II and segregation in the Jim Crow South. He did 60 days in jail in Pasadena, California, for having sex with men, leading then-Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to denounce him as a sex offender in the congressional record.

All these factors were used to delegitimize Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. These injustices won Rustin a pardon in California. But that was in 2010, 23 years after his death from a ruptured appendix at age 75. In 2013, President Obama awarded Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But what about the life he led before his vindication? "Rustin" the movie is out to fill us in. And the passion starts at the top with Domingo, a virtuoso awards contender on TV ("Euphoria"), stage ("The Scottsboro Boys") and film ("Selma"), who wears his role in "Rustin" like a second skin. You can't take your eyes off him.

Domingo refuses to play Rustin as a saint, wisely seeing him as a man with a mission. When the idea for the March on Washington is first broached in 1960, Rustin is forced to resign by his friend, King, in a stinging reversal brought on when hissable Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright, outstanding) threatens to out Rustin as gay.

PHOTO: Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in "Rustin."
David Lee/Netflix

The film shows Rustin's relationship with a white assistant, Tom (Gus Halper), and later a composite lover in married Black preacher Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), but Rustin never loses sight of his goal to get the event in gear with only eight weeks to inspire his staff and mobilize a crowd of 250,000 to march in peaceful protest to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

As a movie, "Rustin" doesn't have the funds to recreate the march, except through newsreels and archival footage. No matter. Domingo's face alone provides a map to a gargantuan achievement. After the crowd roars for King and the gospel of Mahalia Jackson (a superb Da'Vine Joy Randolph), Rustin skips the party to help the cleanup staff restore the mall to normal.

Thanks to Rustin, the fight for racial freedom -- still raging today -- never returns to normal. As Domingo brings Rustin's unquenchable fire to life for a new generation, this extraordinary movie throbs with the galvanizing thrill of activism. It's history lit by lightning.