Film

'Activism and organising is kinda sexy!': Colman Domingo on Rustin, Oscar buzz and the Obamas

Colman Domingo is tipped for an Oscar nomination for his performance as Bayard Rustin, the unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement who has been largely written out of history for being gay

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in Netflix film Rustin

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in Netflix film Rustin. Image: Netflix

“On the day I was born Black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.” Black, gay, left wing, a leader in the civil rights movement – Bayard Rustin faced oppression at every turn.

Rustin dedicated the best years of his life to the civil rights struggle – from advising Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s to being the driving force behind the March on Washington in 1963 that directly led to the Race Relations Act in the US, he was a man of action with a wonderful way of words.

So why is it only now, as new Netflix film Rustin is released, that his story is being heard by a wider audience? The short answer is: homophobia. For a slightly more detailed explanation, it’s over to actor Colman Domingo…

“Bayard Rustin is such an under-sung or unsung hero,” says the actor, who is hotly tipped to join Cillian Murphy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor nominees at next year’s Oscars.

“He was a great strategist and organiser and gave so much of himself for the humanity of others. Bayard Rustin was in service to the world, devoted his life to be in service, and organised the largest peaceful march on Washington in history, at that time.

“He was such a dear friend and inspiration to Dr Martin Luther King, taught him a lot of principles about passive resistance and supported him to truly find his voice and stand tall and be the leader that many people wanted him to be. He did all that but he is marginalised in the history books because he was openly gay.”

Every mass struggle is a coalition of disparate groups coalescing around a big issue. And when these factions fall out, it can be brutal. So it was that Rustin had left the SCLP (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) leadership in 1960 after Senator Roy Wilkins (played in the film by Chris Rock) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr (Jeffery Wright) threatening to out him, spreading malicious and false rumours about his friendship with Dr King (played by British star Aml Ameen).

If, as a result of being largely written out of the history books due to the homophobia of the time, Rustin is almost completely unknown in the UK, it’s not much better in the US, says Domingo.

“Most people, even people who do human rights or civil rights work, may not know who Bayard Rustin was, which is a travesty,” says the actor.

“I stumbled upon him when I was in my junior year of college and joined the African American Student’s Union. We were talking about the civil rights movement and his name came up. He was from Westchester, Pennsylvania, he was a Quaker, he was a young communist, he was a part of the War Resisters League. He played the lute, sang Elizabethan love songs and was on Broadway, AND he organised the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?

“How could this person exist and not be known? Then you realise how much systems were against him. Because if someone was fighting for civil rights, anything could be used against them. So he was a constant target. And because he was openly gay – and was also arrested in Pasadena for having sex with two men, he was a known offender, that could be used. Whether by J Edgar Hoover or members of his own communities like the NAACP.

“What’s beautiful is that we are finally pulling him out of the shadows of history, letting him take his rightful place.”

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and Johnny Ramey as Elias in Netflix film Rustin
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and Johnny Ramey as Elias Taylor in Netflix film Rustin. Image: David Lee / Netflix

Domingo is not exactly sitting comfortably. Instead, he is perched at 45 degrees, half-on and half-off the plush sofa at the London hotel where we meet. “I’m laying like this because these trousers are very tight,” he explains. “I just did a photoshoot. Fashion comes first, you know?”

Just as this film will get Rustin’s name more widely known, so it will with Domingo, who has had a string of fine supporting roles in films with a political edge – from If Beale Street Could Talk to Selma and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

“I knew this film would be seismic in terms of workload – not only in preparation, which I did for five months, but also in the delivery, which was 14 hours a day, every single day, because I’m pretty much in every single frame of the film,” he says.

“But I knew I was ready for the task. I knew it would take all of my 32 years of work in this industry to give to it. So I was ready. And joyful every day to be the leader of this. And we created the film with the spirit of Bayard Rustin – which was truly being in service and loving and kind.”

Does Domingo’s own politics influence the decisions he takes in his career?

“I’m not out on the front lines but I do my work as an artist,” he says. “I do it in in different spaces. You need people on the streets, you need people putting their fists up, but you also need to show up the systems of oppression and move the needle that way.

“It’s funny. I like light-hearted comedies and weird, fantastical work. But the work that’s always drawn to me is really about being in service. So I understand that is probably the best use of me. My work shows how political I am. It shows what I believe in. And I hope it shows how to challenge systems and change the world in some way.”

When Domingo was cast, the Bayard Rustin Center For Social Justice were clearly on board. They put out the following statement: “Your powerful voice helps amplify Bayard Rustin – Godfather of intersectionality, planned the March, brought non-violence to the movement, inspired the Freedom Riders, lost to history because of who he loved, who he was. Angelic Troublemakers unite!”

The trailer for new Netflix film Rustin, starring Colman Domingo

The film’s key line – reproduced at the top of this article – challenges people to dig deep and interrogate their own beliefs. It is, perhaps, the key takeaway message. Because Rustin was all about intersectionality before the word was invented.

“Exactly. It is a fantastic line. It calls people out and says, Well, what do you believe in? Do you really believe in freedom and justice for all? Because all means all. You can’t cherry pick. So that means we all must come together – Black, white, gay, straight. Christian, Jewish, Muslim. Because if we’re if it’s about liberation of all, then let’s let it be about all.”

Rustin faced prejudice on multiple fronts.

“It’s a hat on a hat on a hat,” continues Domingo. “He had many things against him. But the most incredible thing about Bayard Rustin’s character is that he seemingly had a well of drive and hope and fiery determination.

“Especially in a world that was trying to suppress him as much as possible. It came from inside and the way he was raised and his belief in how useful he was in the world. He liberated himself early. He said, this is exactly who I am. I should be exactly who I am in the world, which is optimistically defiant, you know?”

Rustin’s passion to change the world remained undimmed. And his vision when it came to making waves, allied with a singular attention to detail and a deep commitment to non-violence, made him the perfect community organiser and activist.

“It’s meaningful to show how activism and organising is kinda sexy, actually!” grins Domingo. “It’s propulsive. How can we make something happen? How can we be of service today? It’s kinda hot!”

Little wonder that Barack and Michelle Obama chose this story to be their first narrative feature film with their Higher Ground production company.

“We’re best friends now!” jokes Domingo, about the former president and first lady.

“I went to the White House for a screening of Selma many years ago, so I met them there. We became, not friendly, but familiar. Then they came on board to produce this film. For it to be the first narrative feature of their production company says a lot about what they’re interested in, how they want to tell story, and who they want to amplify.

“So they not only have greenlit this film, but they also read scripts, given notes, gathered the cast on a beautiful Zoom to continue to inspire us and rally our spirits when we were having stops and starts during Covid. They were very much the heart and soul around our production.”

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, organising the March On Washington in Netflix film Rustin
Bayard Rustin leading the team organising the March On Washington in Rustin. Image: Netflix

If the film, directed by George C Wolfe (a giant of the US theatre scene, who originated Angels In America on Broadway) does one thing beyond amplifying the name Bayard Rustin and his work for civil rights, Domingo hopes it also inspires young people to see what difference they can make in the world.

“The March on Washington was organised by mainly 18, 19 and 20 year olds. It took these people who weren’t rigid in their thinking. They were like, Yes we can! We can do the impossible in seven weeks’ time. Let’s get to work.

“This is not like any other film. It feels like we are representing people. And it’s something we need. We need to watch how ordinary people did something extraordinary to make sure the world was a bit more just. So it’s about bringing up that spirit again. Because we’re living in some dark times. We need to not feel apathetic. We need to feel like we have some hope and can do something.

“So it’s about them taking a leadership position and saying, I can motivate, I can galvanise, I can gather people. Because that’s what these young people did.

“We have got to find ways to come together and fight for each other. There are always setbacks in history. Right now, in America and I would say over here in Britain, things are trying to be rolled back to 1963. So it’s just about us making sure we’re aware and we can find a way to change this narrative and move us forward.”

And if the film puts Domingo in contention for an Oscar?

“I’m not engaging, I’m letting the buzz happen. Why not? It is work I am very proud of, it is work I feel is impactful and meaningful – so if that buzz feeds into getting more eyes on the film, or feeds into the legacy of Bayard Rustin and all these unsung heroes that are represented in the film, I think that’s extraordinary. So let the buzz buzz!”

Rustin is available on Netflix now

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