Every so often an actor so dominates a movie that its success largely hinges on his every word and gesture. That’s the case with Colman Domingo’s galvanic title performance in “Rustin,” which runs like a current through this portrait of the gay civil-rights activist, a close adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pacifist, ex-con, singer, lutist, socialist — Bayard Rustin had many lives, but he remains best known as the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was Rustin who read the march’s demands from the podium, remaining near King’s side as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
At once a work of reclamation and celebration, “Rustin” seeks to put its subject front and center in the history he helped to make and from which he has, at times, been elided, partly because, as an openly gay man, he challenged both convention and the law. His was a rich, fascinatingly complex history, filled with big personalities and tremendous stakes, one that here is primarily distilled through the march, which the movie tracks from its rushed conception to its astonishing realization on Aug. 28, 1963, when a quarter million people converged at the Lincoln Memorial. It was the defining public triumph of Rustin’s life.
After a little historical scene-setting — via images of stoic protesters surrounded by screaming racists — the director George C. Wolfe, working from a script by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, gets down to business. It’s 1960, and King (Aml Ameen) is exasperated. Several activists have asked King to lead a mass protest against the forthcoming Democratic National Convention. Sighing, King directs his eyes upward as if beseeching a witness from on high and politely declines: “I’m not your man.” A few beats later and his gaze is again directed up, but now at Rustin, who’s towering above King, challenging him.
The protest, Rustin explains, will send a message to the party and its nominee, the front-runner John F. Kennedy. Unless the Democrats take a stand against segregation, Rustin says with rising passion and volume, “our people will not show up for them.” His directness and body language nicely dramatize Rustin’s gifts as a strategist, which reach a crescendo when he sits down, so that now it’s him who’s looking up at King. Swayed by Rustin’s forceful argument, King agrees to lead the protest, enraging establishment power brokers like the head of the N.A.A.C.P., Roy Wilkins (a miscast Chris Rock), and the U.S. Representative for Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a ferocious Jeffrey Wright, taking no prisoners).
Five minutes into the movie, and you’re hooked; everything works in this punchy opener. Yet while Domingo, the unfortunately underused Wright and most of the rest of the cast keep charging forward, the movie soon sags under the weight of its central personality and the monumental history it condenses in under two eventful hours. As it straddles the personal and the political, it struggles to do justice to Rustin, whose life story emerges in frustrating piecemeal, along with an anemic love affair, nods at past hurdles, hints of future milestones and appearances by various major players. Carra Patterson shows up as Coretta Scott King; a vivid Michael Potts pops in and out as the labor organizer Cleveland Robinson.
Powell and Wilkins succeed in derailing the 1960 protest, causing a rift between King and Rustin. The story picks up three years later shortly before Rustin begins organizing the 1963 march, shifting the movie into high gear with bustling characters, clacking typewriters and ringing phones. At their best, these scenes underscore how the civil rights movement was a titanic communal effort. Yet partly because the movie also wants to be a great-forgotten-man-of-history story, the larger movement fades amid the clamor of what can seem like a one-man show. It suggests, for one, that Rustin originated the idea for the march when, in a 1979 interview, he specifically credited his mentor A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) — whose March on Washington Movement dates to the 1940s — with its creation.
The largest problem with the movie is that it’s finally too conventional, formally and politically, to do full justice to the complexities of either the civil-rights movement or Rustin, a socialist whose activism was rooted in his Quakerism and was informed both by his moral beliefs and by economic analysis. When Rustin and other activists on the Left first planned the march, economics was at the fore. “The dynamic that has motivated” Black Americans in their own fight against racism, the plan read, “may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind the demands for a broad and fundamental program for economic justice.”
Whatever its flaws, “Rustin” can’t help but move you with its images of so many people joined in righteous harmony. The optimism of its moment feels very distant from the fractiousness of our own, yet it lifts you, as does Domingo’s fantastically alive turn. From the second that Rustin sweeps into the movie, throwing open his arms to King — and, by extension, welcoming the future they will help make — the actor seizes hold of you. He grabs you with his expressive physicality and then pulls you closer with the urgency, yearning and luminous sincerity that openly plays across his face. It’s such a lucid, persuasive, outwardly effortless performance that you may not even notice he’s carrying this movie almost by himself.
Rated PG-13 for adults being adults and sometimes smoking. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. Watch on Netflix.