Rustin: Obama-backed film gets Oscar buzz for Colman Domingo

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By Steven McIntosh

Entertainment reporter

When Netflix released a film about Bayard Rustin last weekend, the vast majority of subscribers probably looked at the title blankly and wondered: Who?

But that is precisely the reason the film has been made. Rustin is the true story of a man who played an instrumental part in history, but whose contribution has often been overlooked.

The real-life Rustin was a key figure in the civil rights movement who organised the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have A Dream speech.

While the speech and King’s name have gone down in history, Rustin has not. The reason, in large part, is because he was an openly and unapologetically gay man – a controversial stance at the time which led to him being beaten and arrested.

The new film about his life has been produced by Barack and Michelle Obama (more on them in a minute), and its star, Colman Domingo, is likely to be in contention for best actor when the Oscar nominations are announced in January.

Unusually, the press launch is taking place after the film’s release, instead of before. That’s because Hollywood has only just returned to work following the recent strikes, so there is a backlog of promotional work for actors to do for their films.

“Making and creating it is wonderful, but now that we’re out here it’s really nice, because I feel like the films need amplification,” Domingo tells BBC News as he reflects on the strike. “I love that part of it and I’m really glad we’re able to do it now.”

The actor is in London to promote not just one Oscar-tipped film, but two. The night before our interview, we see him at the UK premiere of The Color Purple, the new screen adaptation of the novel which he stars in opposite singer Fantasia Barrino.

“You were there? And you’re not terrified of me?” he jokes – a reference to the nasty and frightening character (Albert) he plays in his other film.

In Rustin, however, the titular character is likeable, driven and charismatic. The actor agrees that the fact many viewers won’t know Rustin’s story underlines the reasons for telling it.

“Absolutely, I love that it’s just called Rustin,” he says. “It raises a question: ‘Who is that?’ And now that it gets seen in 238 countries around the world is extraordinary, because he has been marginalised in the history books because he was openly gay.

“But he was the architect of the March on Washington, he was a key organiser and strategist, such a sizeable figure not only in our culture but in the world, who had such profound impact.

“And part of the greatest flaw is the fact that he’s been erased from history, so now we get to bring him out of the shadows and put him front and centre in his own story.”

Despite some reservations from critics about the film itself, there is widespread agreement that Domingo’s central performance is outstanding.

“He grabs you with his expressive physicality and then pulls you closer with the urgency, yearning and luminous sincerity that openly plays across his face,” wrote Manohla Dargis of the New York Times.

“It’s such a lucid, persuasive, outwardly effortless performance that you may not even notice he’s carrying this movie almost by himself.”

The Guardian’s Wendy Ide praised the “thrillingly dynamic central performance from the versatile Domingo”, but added the film itself was more of a “dutiful plod through the facts”.

Directed by George C Wolf, the movie also stars Chris Rock and CCH Pounder, as well as awards favourites Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Jeffrey Wright (both are in the Oscars conversation this year, but for different films).

  • Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, Bayard Rustin was brought up as a Quaker. He became known as an advocate for peaceful protest
  • Rustin was friends with Martin Luther King, and a key adviser to him during the Montgomery bus boycott
  • He was openly and proudly gay at a time of homophobia in the US
  • Rustin played a key role in organising a peaceful civil rights protest, known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
  • He pulled together a group of young activists to help plan and organise the march
  • The eventual protest, held on 28 August 1963, was attended by an estimated 250,000 people – significantly more than expected
  • Rustin read the march’s demands from the podium, remaining near King’s side as he delivered his I Have a Dream speech
  • The march is credited with encouraging the US government to do more on civil rights, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965
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Rustin died aged 75 in 1987. As part of his research for the role, Domingo studied Rustin’s essays first (“I always start with the written word,” he says) before watching documentary footage featuring speeches he gave.

“That’s when I discovered his accent. His cadence, his manner. Looking at images of him standing, sitting, how he would move his hands. It’s important to me not to make it mimicry, but to find the essence of that.”

Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, is behind the film. It was President Obama who awarded Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Obama has previously said of Rustin: “This is someone who was courageous enough to be who he was despite the fact that he was most certainly going to be ostracised, fired from jobs, pushed aside. And that’s what happened most of the time.”

The Obamas personally “took care of the soul of the production”, Domingo explains, partly due to the fact that it was one of the first narrative features their company has produced.

“They were responsible for getting this film green-lit, and making sure we had everything we needed to do this film and do it well,” he says. “So I know that they read scripts and drafts, they gave notes to George on dailies [the footage being shot each day], understanding what are we making, how are we making it.

“Their name is on it, and this is their first narrative feature, so they were very involved. Even when we were on pause because of Covid shutdowns, they wanted to rally us, they got us all on a Zoom just to inspire us and say keep going.”

Domingo is a strong contender for a best actor nomination at the forthcoming Oscars. Despite a crowded field which also features Wright, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cillian Murphy, Paul Giamatti and Bradley Cooper, Domingo is expected by many to bag one of the five available slots.

Does that have an impact on him? “You know, I think because I’m a more seasoned actor who has been around the block, I feel like I take it with a grain of salt,” he says.

“The amplification of it, the love that’s been pouring in, it’s all wonderful, I can accept it as what it is and it’s not like I’m betting on it or thinking about it, but it’s always nice to know you’re in the conversation, because it’s validating.”

He continues: “If those things happen, I say that’s wonderful. I would welcome that. But hopefully it’s not really for me, it’s for Bayard, it’s for all of my fellow creators, for Barack and Michelle, cast members, it’s for all of us.

“I am at the centre of this film, but I can’t do this alone. So that would be a win for all of us so I say bring it on. If it amplifies the work, people know more about Rustin, I say bring on every single one of those awards!”

Rustin is out now on Netflix