Gifted actor Coleman Domingo (soon to be seen in the musical remake of “The Color Purple”) lights up the screen playing Bayard Rustin, an American activist for civil and gay rights who reached the peak of his career in the early sixties. Unfortunately, the movie never takes off because of a cliche-ridden screenplay by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black and clunky direction by George Wolfe.
Standing six feet and one inch tall, Rustin was a striking presence. He had a great sense of style with a penchant for linen shirts and fabulous ties. He had a Clark Gable mustache and an affected British accent. He was openly gay in an era when homosexuality was viewed as an illness and a perversion that was punishable by imprisonment.
Rustin was Martin Luther King’s adviser and mentor on the 1963 March on Washington. Following King’s greatest triumph, false rumors circulated that King and Rustin were lovers, and Rustin became a potential liability. He submitted his resignation to King, thinking he would reject it, but he was wrong. King, it transpires, was also deeply concerned about the rumors, and the pair parted company.
Rustin continued his quest for civil/gay rights until the end of his days (he died in 1987, aged 75), but his connection to King meant that he was effectively written out of history. “Rustin,” a product of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, wants to remedy this. Unfortunately, apart from Domingo’s performance, the film is underwhelming. Director George Wolfe’s tone is shockingly uneven, ranging from Little Richard-like braggadocio to King Lear-inspired tragedy. The screenplay is a sorry affair with several historical characters forced into clearly manufactured composites. Add to this a weak performance by Aml Ameen as King and a terribly miscast Chris Rock as civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, and you have a disappointment.
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