I first encountered the bold, scene-stealing energy that is Colman Domingo in 2009, when I stumbled across Spike Lee’s filmed adaptation of Passing Strange, the stage musical about a young man discovering life, heartbreak, sex, drugs and himself, from childhood in the 1970s through to young adulthood. It’s a vibrant, wholly original work, and Domingo reprises the role he originated on Broadway, that of a closeted gay preacher’s son our protagonist encounters. Even then, I remember thinking…”who is that?!” about this force of an actor on stage. The man has dozens of IMBd credits between now and then, but it was a role in 2014’s Selma that started to put him on Hollywood’s map. Roles in The Knack, If Beale Street Could Talk, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and more all followed, culminating in his starring role in Rustin, the latest historical drama from filmmaker George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and a moving portrait of one of the often unsung orchestrators of the 1963 March on Washington.
A Black, gay man in mid-century America, Bayard Rustin had two counts against him most of his life, facing discrimination from every angle. In Rustin, screenwriters Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black give audiences a brief primer on the era, with a place-setting 1955 prologue that reminds us just what was at stake as a new decade dawned and the fight for civil rights waged on. From the jump, the film is a who’s who of the leaders of that movement (and of the most talented Black actors of our day), as every organization, mega-church and politician wanted to have a say in what Rustin was proposing. From Martin Luther King (Aml Ameen), a close friend of the organizer, to Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), an opportunist unconvinced that this is the best use of resources and time, there is more than one scene here with an impressive line-up of change-makers gathered around a table.
After being alienated from one job after another due to his overbearing personality and open homosexuality, Rustin is convinced he can pull together a civil demonstration for the ages, bigger than any of his counterparts can envision. And slowly, as the film beautifully depicts, he and his committed core of supporters do just that, navigating egos, obstacles (both real and those created by white authorities who want to squash the demonstration at every turn) and his own demons all the while. Through it all, Domingo is, as ever, a force on screen, embodying a dedicated, passionate man with gusto, and dialing it back for vulnerability when called for, as well. Though based on true events, the film does take some liberties with Rustin’s life, both professional and personal, namely creating the character of Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a married preacher with whom Rustin has an affair until his wife calls him home. Though fabricated, it’s a powerful way to explain how hindered the activist’s life was.
It’s understandable to make these type of big, inspirational films about the men and women who lived in the spotlight at the time; King was known the world over for his activism, and the film reminds us of just how many celebrities lent their presence to the cause that day, both Black and white. As Rustin makes clear, this was not about ego for him, or about making a name for himself in a nationwide movement, which perhaps allowed him to be more ambitious (and adventurous) than those in the limelight. Instead, Rustin portrays the man behind the curtain, the man who rallied a team to think of every detail, every possible need and circumstance for an event that would safely and without violent incident gather more than 100,000 people on the National Mall.
Small scenes become incredibly meaningful as the event draws near, from the moment Dr. Anna Hedgeman’s (CCH Pounder) confronts Rustin and his team about an agenda completely lacking women at the podium to Rustin’s internal trauma from past violence informing his approach to training the Black security forces contracted for the day. In the end, Wolfe’s beautiful film works two-fold, as a portrait of a man whose name you’ve likely never heard, and as a captivating chronicle of one of the most politically meaningful events in American history.
Rustin is now streaming on Netflix.
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