RUSTIN, directed by George C. Wolfe, is one of the most important and illuminating movies of the year, shining a spotlight on a little-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin. An openly gay man, Rustin was the key architect of the 1963 March on Washington; yet because of who he loved, his legacy has mostly been ignored by history… until now.
Now streaming on Netflix, RUSTIN does a remarkable job exploring who Rustin (played by Colman Domingo) was as a person, particularly focusing on the lead-up to the March on Washington. But don’t think of this is a stodgy, boring biopic. Instead, it is a powerful character study of a complicated man planning the largest peaceful protest in history, right down to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I love that the film that takes on the personality of its namesake—with humor, heart, and hardships sprinkled throughout each scene.
This film, especially Colman Domingo’s award-worthy performance, is the perfect introduction to Rustin’s story, which is barely covered in history books. So much so, I have since read article after article about him, and was excited to attend a special event at the Library of Congress here in DC, which gave us the opportunity to see important elements of Rustin’s life, as well as historic documents about the March on Washington. It was incredible to be face-to-face with some of the most significant documents in the nation’s history, inside one of the most beautiful locations in DC. My favorite part of it all was seeing Bayard Rustin’s own doodles on his notes about the March, which further humanized him to me.
Additionally, we were able to walk in Rustin’s footsteps, taking a tour of the National Mall and the many important landmarks that surround it. The Trust on the National Mall has a free, self-guided audio tour that describes the lead-up and implementation of the March on Washington! You would think as a resident of the DC area, I would be a little jaded by the historical significance of the nation’s capital. But as a history nerd, I was blown away by all of the new information I learned about Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement.
I had the amazing opportunity to interview Colman Domingo and George C. Wolfe about the film. After seeing so much of DC in the film, I was excited to hear what it was like filming RUSTIN at the actual locations where history occurred. “Any time you are able to shoot in DC, it’s phenomenal,” said Domingo. “DC is just a place that feels like possibility. We shot right on The Mall, and when you go up the stairs and look back… our characters actually say, ‘Doesn’t it fill you with promise?’ And you do feel that. I feel that when I come to DC. And I love walking around The Mall when you’re looking at every color, creed, and religion… all of the people here. There is that promise of what America can be when we live up to our highest ideals and that is what I loved about shooting here. It felt like all of the things that were underneath the film were here. We had to be on location.”
And it’s good to hear that both men were still so supportive of shooting in DC despite the incredibly hot DC summer conditions. Domingo joked, “It was 106 degrees or something like that. But you know what I thought? I’m filming it. Other people had to live it… so toughen up. This is one day when you’re in a wool suit and it’s 106 degrees. You’re playing at this; you’re not actually doing it. Take one for the team, honor your ancestors, honor all of those people that were out here at The Mall that day and suck it up.”
Wolfe elaborated, “By the time the sun hit the marble at the Lincoln Memorial it was 120 degrees. So I had actors who would do a scene and then seconds after, they would whip out a fan or retreat because there were people almost fainting. So that was intense, but at the same time it was so inspiring… it was so thrilling to me that you get to play in such a stunning place. The film has been a journey from people with limited power forced to live in the shadows of New York City because they can’t take over the streets and so coming to DC and all of these people coming in is like people taking over the streets in the daytime and claiming them as their own because DC, in 1963, was a very segregated city.”
Finally, my weekend of RUSTIN rounded out at a special screening of the film as part of the HBCU First Look Film Festival, hosted at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Imagine my surprise when the producers of the film, President Barack and Michelle Obama, introduced the film! Mrs. Obama spoke about what she hopes audiences will take away from Rustin’s legacy, and how proud she and President Obama were to finally shine a light on Rustin’s incredible accomplishments. President Obama called Colman Domingo’s performance a “tour-de-force” and went on to speak about how Bayard Rustin’s legacy and successes paved the way for Obama’s own presidency and where America stands today.
Overall, RUSTIN is a must-see film that you can enjoy from the comfort of your home, with one of the best performances of the year in Colman Domingo. Domingo is such a dynamic, versatile actor, who is able to go from a role like X in ZOLA to Ali in EUPHORIA and now Bayard Rustin. President Obama was completely right; this man is a powerhouse performer, perfectly encapsulating who Rustin was as a person, flaws and all. His performance is one to watch this award season, as is the movie itself.
My Review: A