TV & Film | Exclusive Interview
Actor Colman Domingo stars in his first lead role as civil rights legend Bayard Rustin in the Netflix film "Rustin".
Directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by the Obamas’ production company Higher Grounds, Rustin centers on Bayard Rustin, who as a Black gay man was the chief organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 and a close friend and mentor to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he ignited a radical movement at the time, his contributions were largely forgotten throughout history due to his sexuality and public perception.
Just like the pioneering activist, the film Rustin is revolutionary in multiple ways:
First, it sheds light on a severely understated figure who was instrumental in shaping the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.. Bayard Rustin informed Dr. King’s universally recognized praxis of non-violence from his own experience and teachings.
From their synergy, monumental accomplishments were made that shifted the tides towards national progress such as the planning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and of course - the implementation of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Second, by centering Bayard Rustin, a Black, openly gay man, it automatically provides a fresh perspective that’s rarely seen in historical dramas focusing on the Civil Rights Movement.
Both in reality and onscreen, Black progress is usually translated via a heteronormative lens. Instead, through Rustin’s activism and life, this film conveys Blackness and queerness as one amidst a culture that says otherwise.
Lastly, viewers get to see an empowered Black, gay person embracing themselves in the middle of the 20th century, which was a rare phenomenon at the time. The challenges of working through anti-Blackness and homophobia externally from your community will take its toll on the psyche. Witnessing someone who not only alchemizes those challenges into strength, but by imbuing this power onto others is inspirational to say the least.
Altogether, Bayard Rustin was an eclectic, idiosyncratic, multidimensional figure, these aforementioned traits are often not shown let alone applied to many of the Black civil rights figures we normally see. Colman Domingo channels the energy of Bayard Rustin and provides an electric performance that demands your attention throughout the film.
Gaye Magazine received an advanced screening of Rustin and an exclusive invitation from Netflix to interview the film’s director, George C. Wolfe and lead Colman Domingo.
*Spoiler Alerts Ahead*
Watch Rustin now on Netflix and come back!
What was the decision-making journey like with selecting which parts of Rustin’s life to include in the film?
George C. Wolfe: “To me, the film is about Bayard, but also 1963, which was a very interesting year. Brown v. Board of Education…the Supreme Court said segregation is over and the South said we’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen. This was also the year that Medgar Evers was shot and killed…hoses and dogs were turned on children in Birmingham.”
“In the middle of all of this, Bayard, this brilliant organizer, this out gay man who was a 1963 version of out, but out nonetheless put together a March that drew 250,000 people to Washington, DC, which was a segregated city at that time, so boundaries were being expanded [and] shattered.”
“One of the things that I deeply admired about Bayard is that he understood and inspired other people that it needn’t look like you to be about you.”
“There have been many marches since and he created the template.”
Why do you think it was important to include the romantic storyline with the preacher Elias in the film?
George C. Wolfe: “It was important to include it because Elias is married [and] a Baptist preacher, and to contrast how out Bayard was, it was important to embody the norm…a person who had to and didn’t realize he didn’t have an option other than to do what was expected of him.”
“All of us juggle our personal ambitions and our sense of responsibility with our private selves. While he’s pulling together this March, under attack from J.Edgar Hoover and Strom Thormond, he’s also beginning a relationship, he’s also connected to a past relationship, he’s also taking on the people within the Civil Rights Movement who have concerns about his identity and what that might mean in a detrimental way to the cause.”
He continued, “You want to present a human being who’s filled with contradictions and obstacles as much as we all are, but is magnified because of the scale of what he’s trying to achieve at the same time.”
“If we as regular human beings see that, hopefully it empowers us to become the strongest, bravest, boldest version of who we are.” -George C. Wolfe.
Viewers may have noticed that a major moment of Bayard Rustin speaking and giving his list of civil rights demands at the March on Washington did not occur in the movie.
Was there a reason we didn’t get to see Bayard Rustin speak at the March on Washington?
Colman Domingo: "We actually filmed the part where he does speak, but my director George C. Wolfe wanted to streamline the event." (It got removed)
"We filmed a lot of the March on Washington, but I think at the end of the day we thought 'you could watch the documentary on that' but let's just stay with the man. If it wasn’t a point of view focused on the man of our central character Bayard Rustin, that's [why}.
A director's cut of the movie has not been confirmed to be released. *Crosses fingers*
Watch Bayard Rustin Speak:
This is one of your first lead roles in a feature film, how did your casting as Bayard Rustin come into play and what was that experience like as lead?
Colman Domingo: “It was the good fortune that I was given from legendary director George C. Wolfe who I worked with on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“He was trying to find out who had the capacity to live and breathe and interrogate Bayard Rustin…who would take it on as a mission. Luckily he and the team believed it was me.
When I got the role I was excited, but terrified, because it’s a great responsibility especially knowing that LGBTQIA+ characters are usually in the fringe of the story, not in the center.”
“[For] such a complex man like Rustin, I wanted to make sure I did all that I could to tell his story in such a complex way. I didn’t want to leave anything behind, I didn’t want to leave behind his wit, his intelligence, his sexuality, his charm, his being a little messy, all of it is interesting and I think that’s what makes it a full character.”
“I feel like if I did my job well, there'll be many more stories with us in the center.”
What was the process like forming the personality and character of Rustin?
Colman Domingo: “If you look at any video footage of Bayard Rustin, he has this Mid-Atlantic standard accent and I found out from one of his friends, he created that accent. He created himself. He was already such a formidable person from being an athlete to a conscientious objector, part of the War Resisters League, a young Communist, he played the flute, sang Elizabethan love songs. Also, the prosthetics, he had two teeth knocked out many years before and it was important to have that and important to know that he wore it as a badge of honor.
“This brother was like no other, so there was no blueprint for him.”
“I love researching and distilling all of that down into my body and making physical choices, vocal choices that were honoring him, but not mimicking him. So that’s how we created the character of Bayard, which is different from the way I move through space and the way I speak.”
Throughout history, Bayard Rustin has been a shadow whose impact and influence on Black, queer history, by and large, has been ignored. Rustin is a timely film in that it places a relevant, missing piece of history back into the consciousness of the masses.
Furthermore, as a revolutionary Bayard Rustin provides an exemplar of what it looks like to radically love yourself as a Black, gay person. Hopefully, this film not only amplifies this iconic figure but ultimately helps shed light on scores of other Black, LGBTQIA+ figures who were integral to the pursuit of Black liberation.
Rustin is available to watch on Netflix. We hope you enjoy the film Gayes!
Check out our full exclusive interview with director George C. Wolfe and lead actor Colman Domingo here: