First, there’s the equipment he brings to every task: first, that voice, inherently musical and expressive. can be listened to. Even the more weighty informational passages in Netflix’s feature film “Rustin” are no match for it.
There’s also everything beyond the voice that makes Colman Domingo such a vital actor. There’s the burning technique, but in Netflix’s docuseries about civil rights activist and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, many major scenes are minor scenes involving one or two other actors. Domingo scales everything beautifully and thoroughly. Even when it comes time to monologue, Domingo has an instinct for turning big moments into human-scale interactions.
Black, gay, and fearless, Rustin (1912-1987) put his passion for justice into practice early and often painfully. He eventually became one of the key architects and organizers of the 1963 Washington March for Jobs and Freedom, which was the occasion for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Although he was a close confidant of King and a political force himself, Rustin’s gains were met with constant resistance from his image-conscious allies, not to mention his enemies.
In the script from director George C. Wolfe, Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Dustin Lance Black (“Milk,” “Under the Banner of Heaven”), director George C. Wolfe dives into scenes of grassroots organizing and relishes the obstacles Rustin encounters and then he lets her argue, persuade, and move toward the right side of history. It’s not a long movie (just over 90 minutes, excluding the end credits), and so it’s always in a rush to get on to the next thing. But with Domingo at the center, the scenes connect and come alive.
Jeffrey Wright, like Domingo, is one of the best actors working, appearing in two sharp scenes as the elegantly arrogant Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, no fan of the troublemaker Rustin. Audra McDonald (as Rustin’s beloved civil rights activist Ella Baker) shares two brief sequences with the title character, and the sheer, easy-going pleasure these two take in each other’s company becomes a seminar on how top-notch performers can get from middling-to-good performance. material.
A naturally occurring subtheme runs through “Rustin” about the personal and the political, and how lives lived without fear of personal compromise bring tremendous pressure. Rustin’s sexual life is illustrated in the film’s PG-13 style, with the attraction of a fictional romantic interest, a married, ostensibly heterosexual-trained preacher (Johnny Ramey), in scenes set in a gay bar a few perilous years before Stonewall. Rustin tears him apart. Some scenes and much of the politics between various factions of the civil rights movement work better than others. (We usually hear a faint sound of speaking as opposed to speaking.) Still, “Rustin” is worth seeing as Colman Domingo’s beacon of honesty in any dramatic context.
Inside Film version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” director Wolfe got great performances from himself and Glynn Turman; In “Rustin,” Turman brings real strength and power as labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who becomes Rustin’s partner in imagining the details of the March on Washington. Like the central figure, Rustin, Randolph is not a name and story known to many people under a certain age today. As written, “Rustin” does a pretty good job of making (re)introductions. Acting-wise, the film is beyond pretty good.
“Rustin” – 3 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, some violence, sexual material, language containing racial slurs, brief drug use and smoking)
Running time: 1:46
How to watch: Stream on Netflix
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.