Bayard Rustin is a name that every American should know, garnering the same level of awareness as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in the classroom.

As a gay African American activist and organizer, Rustin faced even more unimaginable bigotry than his peers as he set about organizing the unparalleled demonstration that was the 1963 March on Washington.

Actor Colman Domingo delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as Rustin, collaborating once again with DGA and Tony award winning director George C. Wolfe. The two previously collaborated on 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was a criminally underrated Netflix film.

“Rustin” succeeds when it showcases its hero’s personal life, that of a man simply trying to exist in a time where he wasn’t wanted. Domingo disappears in this characters, from the mannerisms to the witty lines aimed at his lovers or in many cases his detractors.

Outside of the well-written role of Rustin, writers Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black fail to elevate the material to the same level. The script follows a conventional formula in many ways, and scenes lack the electricity or authenticity that you feel when Domingo is exploring his sexuality or specifically, when Domingo is visiting Dr. King’s family before Dr. King doctor returns home.

The production design and staging of several scenes keeps the audience at a distance, and unfortunately the moments that this film hopes to be the most impactful feel the most manufactured and fabricated…. unearned in reality.

Domingo is incredibly charming in this role, and when he puts on a record he spins his charming words at the same rotational speed as the vinyl on the record player… he draws you into the film to the point where you feel as if you’re in the room with him.

The exact opposite feeling is summoned when watching scenes with Chris Rock’s Roy Wilkins, the NAACP Executive Secretary during the March. Rock can’t help but break any hint of reality within the scenes that he inhabits.

Nothing about Rock’s performance feels authentic to the 1960s setting or the details available regarding the real life Roy Wilkins. In contrast, Aml Ameen’s work as Dr. King proves much more tethered to the setting and on par with Domingo’s performance as Rustin. These two have real chemistry on screen and it’s a shame that doesn’t translate across the entire cast.

Wolfe’s scene construction in Rustin is vapid more often than not, with nothing matching the raw power of the film’s opening montage featuring six-year-old Ruby Bridges being chaperoned by U.S. marshals to a desegregated elementary school, or high school student Elizabeth Eckford being jeered upon as she enters her building as one of the only African American students.

The March on Washington is a moderately fulfilling finale, aided heavily by the earnest score of Branford Marsalis that carries many moments in this film.

However, you can’t help but feel that the conclusion should have had twice the impact that it manifests. Many of the film’s scenes feel stand alone in nature, not building upon each other in a meaningful way. The scenes feel like Lego blocks of various color building one on top of the next, trading two scenes that advance the civil rights narrative and then one to check in on Rustin’s personal life.

Despite Domingo’s Oscar worthy performance, which will likely be one of two Oscar nominations headed Rustin‘s way, the film falls to reach the peaks that its predecessors (like Selma) achieved. That is not to say there isn’t a great value in sharing the film, as more Americans should know of the work done by Bayard Rustin.

Letter Grade: C+

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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