Six decades after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of an estimated 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a new Netflix film is shining a spotlight on one of the architects of the March on Washington who has largely been left out of the history books.
Directed by George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and written by Julian Breece and Academy Award-winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), “Rustin” revisits a crucial chapter in the life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (played by Colman Domingo), who is best known for being a key adviser 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 dramatizes the weeks leading up to the historic march and explores Rustin’s identity 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 infused with every part of who he is,” Domingo told NBC News in a recent video interview. “He’s messy in many ways, even with his relationship dealings. He’s a real, flawed human being who’s trying to do something extraordinary, but he’s just an ordinary man. He’s trying to figure out the systems in which he lives and trying to move the needle a little bit on our humanity.”
Wolfe, an acclaimed theater director and playwright who won multiple Tony Awards for directing Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and his own “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” in the 1990s, has long been interested in telling stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Wolfe was asked to curate an exhibit more than a decade ago at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where he had an opportunity to delve into the life and accomplishments of Rustin, who died in 1987.
That treasure trove of research has proven invaluable in the five years that it has taken for “Rustin” to reach the big screen. In 2018, Black, the screenwriter, and film producer Bruce Cohen approached Tonia Davis at the Obamas’ newly launched production company, Higher Ground, about making a feature film centered around Rustin’s role in the March on Washington. Wolfe was attached early on as the director and worked closely with the writers to refine the screenplay and before long, he said, they could not imagine anyone other than Domingo, with whom he had just worked on “Ma Rainey,” to play the titular character in “Rustin.”
Domingo said he likely encountered Rustin’s story for the first time as a footnote in a college textbook but it wasn’t until years later, in the ’90s, that the actor learned about the extent of Rustin’s impact on the civil rights movement. For the better part of the last two decades, Domingo recalled, people would regularly tell him, “Oh, that’s a role that you should definitely play when they do 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 step into his shoes, 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 glean the most insight from his personal conversations with those who knew the man behind the movement.
“I think one of the most beautiful things that I love to do, especially with playing a real-life character, is to find out from people who knew and loved him all these personal ticks or things about them that you cannot find in Wikipedia,” Domingo said. For example, the actor — who grew up in Philadelphia, about an hour away from Rustin’s hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania — could not understand the origin of Rustin’s idiosyncratic, mid-Atlantic accent until Rachelle Horowitz, one of the activist’s comrades, revealed that Rustin simply made it up and used it as a kind of “flourish” in group meetings.
Rustin was always looking for new ways to reinvent himself and challenge the limits that others attempted to place on him, Domingo said. “He created himself in a very joyfully defiant 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 the young communist groups. He was just doing what made sense to him in every single moment. That’s what I thought was fascinating.”
While some filmmakers have chosen to depict civil rights icons with almost the quality of a saint in the past, Wolfe felt strongly about depicting Rustin in all his complexity — a decision that he hopes will make this story as accessible to the masses as possible.
“Regular human beings may not be planning the largest peaceful protest in the world, but they are dealing with day-to-day life and trying to do the right thing, the just thing and the correct thing,” Wolfe said. “I want to tell stories about people where you see their heart, their frailty, their weakness, their strength, their wonder, their fears and their doubts all combined, and then they nonetheless push through and take on the world in small ways or large ways and change it.”
Part of Rustin’s struggle, both in real life and in the film, stemmed from the issue of whether his sexuality could hinder other people’s beliefs in his ability to lead the March on Washington and beyond. The activist, after all, faced resistance not only from the white populace but also from members of the Black community, including NAACP executive Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright).
That dilemma “was always his internal crisis,” Domingo said. “How can you be exactly who you are and do what you know you are gifted to do, but then there’s parts of yourself that are not wanted in rooms? How can you do it? That’s a dance that I think many of us can understand, whether we’re people of color, whether you’re LGBTQIA. But he was extraordinary, saying, ‘I want to bring all of me into this.’”
Wolfe noted that, given the time period, Rustin was a remarkably “out homosexual” who “claimed and owned all of who he was” in 1963. For this retelling of the leader’s life story, Wolfe and his creative team decided to create the character of Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a fictionalized pastor on the NAACP board, who acts as a kind of foil and closeted love interest to the more free-spirited Rustin.
“Elias becomes a really interesting person in contrast” to Rustin, who was raised by Quaker grandparents in the North, because Elias “is Southern, he’s Baptist, he’s married. He has done all the things that are expected for him to do,” Wolfe explained. “There’s a line in the film which Bayard uses called ‘the suffocating chains of Negro respectability,’ and Bayard has liberated himself largely from those suffocating chains, and Elias is very much so imprisoned by those chains.”
That liberation, however, doesn’t mean Rustin is not haunted by his own past. As the march draws closer, Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator from South Carolina, exposes Rustin’s arrest in 1953 when he was found having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena — a real-life charge that was pardoned by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020.
In that pivotal scene, where Rustin and his team of fellow march organizers are listening to Thurmond speak about Rustin’s arrest record on the radio, Rustin is “trying to hold onto the only thing he knows how to do while they’re trying to destroy him,” Domingo explained. “For me, that’s what I wanted to play — that complexity where he’s completely disintegrating in front of our eyes while he’s trying to stay on task.”
The film carries a special professional significance for Domingo, one of the most versatile actors of his generation. After more than 30 years of working as a self-described “journeyman” actor and receiving acclaim for playing 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 where people can see the scope of what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been creating for years, and it’s being met with such loving, celebratory arms that if I sat in or really thought about it, I would never stop crying, because I think it’s really beautiful,” Domingo said, with a glint in his eye. “It feels like people are giving me my flowers — not that I’ve asked for them, but because I’ve always, I guess, like Bayard Rustin, always kept my head down and just went to work.”