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 Coleman 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).