Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir George C Wolfe
scr Julian Breece, Dustin Lance Black
prd Bruce Cohen, Tonia Davis, George C Wolfe
with Colman Domingo, Aml Ameen, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Gus Halper, Johnny Ramey, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Audra McDonald, Jeffrey Wright, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Lilli Kay
release US/UK 3.Nov.23
23/US Netflix 1h46

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Smooth and sparky, this biopic about the often overlooked Civil Rights pioneer is directed by George C Wolfe to vividly capture a pivotal point in American history. And Bradford Marsalis' jazzy score ripples with emotion, as the terrific actors create intriguing, complex layers in the characters. But what brings this film outrageously to life is the combination of a smart script and a blazing performance by Colman Domingo.
Although ruled illegal in 1954, racial segregation continues to blight the United States in 1960. So enthusiastic activist Bayard Rustin (Domingo) convinces his friend Martin Luther King Jr (Ameen) to take a public stand on the issue. Even when they fall out, Bayard continues to think big, imagining the largest peaceful march in history at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Rock) refuses to help, so Bayard turns to his old friend Martin. And as plans progress to stage the event in 1963, opposition comes from all sides, including within the community.
Riveting stories are woven through the script, as the events on-screen touch on things happening throughout society at the time. This creates a remarkably full-bodied history of the period, tracing Bayard's involvement at the centre of key Civil Rights advancements. Meanwhile, in a climate in which homosexuality is forbidden, Bayard is unable to develop his secret personal relationships with his white assistant Tom (Halper) and closeted married colleague Elias (Ramey).

Domingo channels his considerable charisma into the fiery Rustin, who is driven by his passion for the cause. This is a bold, nuanced performance that works powerfully on several levels, infusing a range of emotions into each conversation. The film's approach kind of leaves other characters orbiting around him, with their own stories off-screen, so none become particularly well-rounded, even though the actors are excellent across the board. The standout is the expressive Ameen, who has notable presence as King.

Bayard notes that "when Martin speaks he holds nothing back, and people feel the truth", and this comes back around later in a profoundly personal way. Bayard is so ardent that he refuses to water down his plans in any way, aiming for maximum impact for a bracingly complex range of reasons, carefully highlighted in the astute dialog. Seen through his eyes, the March on Washington is thrilling to watch. And the film finds a note of grace in its final moments.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 11.Nov.23

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall