Search icon

Entertainment News

26th Jan 2024

Underrated and overlooked Netflix gem receives massive Oscars boost

Patrick McCarry


“So! Talk, shout, take command!”

Earlier this week, the Oscar nominations were announced and hundreds of thousands of us – similar numbers to a famous march on Washington in 1963 – went searching for Rustin.

Many were expecting Leonardo DiCaprio and Andrew Scott to be included in the Best Actor category, with Barry Keoghan a good shout, too. Instead, the surprise, yet welcome, nomination of Colman Domingo tied a knot on that five-man category. Domingo plays the titular character of Bayard Rustin, advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organise a mass march on Washington D.C that culminated in the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech:

Rustin fought against inequality on two major fronts

Bayard Rustin was a leading figure in the social movement for black civil rights, in the United States of America, from the 1940s all the way up until his death in 1987.

He helped organise the Freedom Rides, was a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the driving forces behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which saw more than 250,000 people flood into Washington D.C as part of a peaceful demonstration on gay rights.

What added to Rustin’s struggle, for much of his career in activism, was that he was a gay man. That often led to him taking a more behind-the-scenes role in many campaigns, protests, demonstrations, and more. He was striving for all individuals to be seen as equal, yet also dealing with a heavy stigma, at that time, regarding his homosexuality. He once proclaimed:

“If we want to do away with the injustice to gays it will not be done because we get rid of the injustice to gays. It will be done because we are forwarding the effort for the elimination of injustice to all. And we will win the rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all.”

The movie, which had former US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, as producers, focuses on a period of Bayard Rustin’s life when salacious, unfounded rumours caused a rift between him and King, and saw him driven away, for a period, from the civil rights movement. In the film, available on Netflix, the March on Washington is Rustin’s comeback story, although his personal life, the F.B.I, pugnacious politicians and President John F. Kennedy himself all have their say in matters.

Rustin is brilliantly played by 54-year-old American actor Colman Domingo, who told Sky News he was in his bathroom when he found out he was an Oscar nominee. “There is a tagline that we used for the movie,” he said, “and that is ‘Own Your Power’. That is for everyone – Own your power, own your voice, own your space. That is everything Rustin was doing, back in 1963, when he had everything against him. He had people saying he should not exist, should not have a voice. To watch someone who was so undaunted, but had made spaces for himself, inspired me.”

Domingo, a Philadelphia native, had initial acting success in the late 1990s, and 2000s, in TV shows Nash Bridges and Law & Order. He then made a name for himself as a commanding stage actor before linking up with Spike Lee for two movies. He was cast in Lincoln, in 2012, and has not looked back, starring in other big movies, such as Selma, The Colour Purple, If Beale Street Could Talk and Zola.

Cillian Murphy remains the favourite, for his role in Oppenheimer, to claim his first ever Oscar, but Paul Giamati is the dark-horse as The Holdovers gathers more and more momentum. Bradley Cooper (The Maestro) is behind, in the betting stakes, at least, followed by Jeffrey Wright (American Fiction). Domingo is a clear outsider but the wide reach of Netflix, all involved in Rustin will hope, could tighten the gap.


Rustin gets THREE STARS

Rustin was released in November 2023 on Netflix but failed to make it into the streamers’ own global Top 10 for movies, in its’ first week. It became the first live-action Netflix US film not to appear in the weekly Top 10, on the streamer, for 15 months. Even with the Obamas as executive producers, it was failing to find traction, until the Colman Domingo nominations [Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTA, SAG] started to roll in.

The movie itself is well worth a watch – streaming details for that, and all the major nominees here – and Domingo is excellent as Bayard Rustin. He plays the character with much verve and soul, while displaying, in looks, mannerisms and in private moments, how the decades of struggle, oppression and fear have scarred him. There is a moment, before we build to the climax of the march, when Rustin watches himself being discussed on TV by civil rights leaders, and his old friend, King. His acting here is top notch, and will draw emotion out of most viewers.

As a whole, the film veers into made-for-TV territory on a few occasions. Organisers of the march, more than 60 years ago, had only eight weeks to pull everything together. You get the sense that is how this movie was shot. It can go from an incredibly powerful scene to a mawkish one with ‘there’s no way someone would ever say those words out loud’ dialogue. There is a stunt casting of Chris Rock as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, but he pulls it off by the end. Johnny Ramey and Glynn Thurman [The Wire’s Mayor Royce] are strong in supporting roles.

Ultimately, though, it is Colman Domingo that pulls the whole story together, by making you care for his character and the journey he is on.

It may not be enough to win him an Academy Award, but it should see his career arc continue to rise and bring a host of new eyes to a movie with a compelling message.

Rustin (available on Netflix) – * * * (out of 5)

Join JOE’s WhatsApp community for first access to news, updates, and quizzes. Click on this link to receive news and the latest headlines directly to your phone. You can leave the group at any time.

Read more: