“Rustin” shines a long-overdue spotlight on the architect of the March on Washington
Six decades after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to an estimated 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a new Netflix film shines a spotlight on one of the architects of the Independence Day Parade. A Washington that has been largely left out of history books.
Directed by George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and written by Julian Press and Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), “Rustin” revisits a crucial chapter in the life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo). , best known for being a key advisor to King and organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Executive produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, who posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, the buzzy biopic depicts the weeks leading up to the historic march and explores the identity of Rustin as an openly gay black man torn between love and duty in the 1960s.
“I love the fact that, even the way the script is written, we don’t leave his sexuality out of it at all. It’s filled with every part of who he is,” Domingo told NBC News in a recent video interview. “It’s messy in ways.” Many, even in his dealings with relationships. He’s a real, flawed human being trying to do something extraordinary, but he’s just an ordinary guy. “He’s trying to figure out the systems he lives in and trying to move the needle a little bit on our humanity.”
Wolfe, the acclaimed theater director and playwright who won numerous Tony Awards for directing Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and his 1990s hit “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” has long been interested in telling stories about people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Wolf was asked to curate an exhibition more than a decade ago at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where he had the opportunity to delve into the life and accomplishments of Rustin, who died in 1987.
This treasure trove of research has proven invaluable in the five years it has taken “Rustin” to reach the big screen. In 2018, Black screenwriter and film producer Bruce Cohen approached Tonya Davis at Obama’s newly launched production company, Higher Ground, about making a feature film centered around Rustin’s role in the March on Washington. Wolfe came on board early as director and worked closely with the writers to refine the script, and soon they could not imagine anyone other than Domingo, with whom he had just worked on Ma Rainey, to play the lead. A character in “Rustin”.
Domingo said he likely first encountered Rustin’s story as a footnote in a college textbook, but the actor didn’t learn about the extent of Rustin’s influence on the civil rights movement until years later, in the 1990s. Domingo recalls that for the better part of the past two decades, people would regularly say to him, “Oh, this is the role you should definitely play when they make the movie of his life,” perhaps because they shared so much in common. (Like Rustin, Domingo is black, gay, tall, left-handed, and born in Pennsylvania.)
So, when the time came to take his place, Domingo voraciously consumed every piece of media he could find about Rustin—reading biographies, watching documentaries, visiting museums, listening to interviews—but he admitted that he was able to extract the most knowledge from his conversations. Personal with those who knew the man behind the movement.
“I think one of the most beautiful things I love to do, especially when playing a real character, is to find out from the people who knew him and loved him all these personal markers or things about them that you can’t find on Wikipedia,” Domingo said. For example, the actor — who grew up in Philadelphia, about an hour away from Rustin’s hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania — couldn’t understand the origin of Rustin’s distinctive mid-Atlantic accent until Rachel Horowitz, one of the activist’s companions, revealed that Rustin simply By making it up and using it as a “boom” in group meetings.
Rustin was always looking for new ways to reinvent himself and challenge the boundaries that others tried to impose on him, Domingo said. “He created himself in a very defiant and joyful way: being an athlete, playing the lute, singing Elizabethan love songs, actually cutting an album of Elizabethan love songs and hymns, being a conscientious objector, being part of young communist groups. He was just doing what made sense to him.” Him in every moment. And that’s what I thought was great.
While some filmmakers chose to portray civil rights icons with almost the same saintly quality in the past, Wolfe felt strongly about portraying Rustin in all his complexity — a decision he hopes will make this story as accessible to audiences as possible.
“Ordinary human beings may not be planning the largest peaceful protest in the world, but they are dealing with everyday life and trying to do the right thing, the just and right thing,” Wolf said. “I want to tell stories about people whose hearts, fragility, weakness, strength, wonder, fears and doubts come together, and yet they move forward and face the world in small and big ways. Ways and change.”
Part of Rustin’s struggle, both in real life and in the film, stems from the question of whether his sexuality could hinder others’ beliefs in his ability to lead the march to Washington and beyond. After all, the activist faced resistance not only from white residents but also from members of the black community, including NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright).
Domingo said that this dilemma “was always his internal crisis.” “How can you be exactly who you are and do what you know you’re gifted to do, but then there are parts of yourself that aren’t wanted in the rooms? How can you do that? This is a dance that I think a lot of us can understand, whether we’re people of color, Whether you’re from the LGBTQIA community. But he was exceptional. He said, ‘I want to include all of me in this.’
Wolfe noted that, given that time period, Rustin was “noticeably homosexual” and “claimed and owned everything he was” in 1963. In order to retell the story of the Commander’s life, Wolfe and his creative team decided to create the character. Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a fictional pastor on the NAACP board, who serves as a kind of foil and closed-off love interest for the freer-spirited Rustin.
Elias becomes a really interesting person in contrast to Rustin, who was raised by Quaker grandparents in the North, because Elias “is a Southerner, he’s a Baptist, and he’s married. “He did all the things he was expected to do,” Wolf explained. “There’s a line in the movie that Bayard uses called ‘the stifling shackles of Negro respectability,’ and Bayard has largely freed himself from those stifling shackles, and Elias is very much imprisoned by those shackles.”
However, this liberation does not mean that Rustin is not haunted by his past. As the march approaches, Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator from South Carolina, reveals Rustin’s 1953 arrest when he was found having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena — a real charge that was pardoned by Gov. California Gavin. Newsom in 2020.
In this pivotal scene, as Rustin and his team of fellow march organizers listen to Thurmond talk about Rustin’s arrest record on the radio, Rustin tries to “hold on to the only thing he knows how to do while they try to destroy him.” Domingo explained. “For me, that’s what I wanted to play — this complexity where he completely disintegrates before our eyes as he tries to stay on task.”
The film holds special professional significance for Domingo, one of the most versatile actors of his generation. After more than 30 years as a “journeyman” actor and receiving acclaim for supporting roles in “Fear the Walking Dead,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Euphoria” (for which he won a guest actor Emmy), Rustin is Domingo’s first major leading role.
“I think the chickens have come home to roost in a way that people can see the scope of what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been creating for years, and it’s been met with such loving celebratory arms that if I sit down and when I think about it or really think about it, I’ll never stop,” Domingo said. About crying, because I think it’s really beautiful.” “It’s as if people are giving me my flowers — not because I asked them for them, but because I think I’ve always, like Bayard Rustin, kept my head down and gone to work.”