The story of activist Bayard Rustin is one that should be told in classrooms everywhere.
Instead, because Rustin was an openly same-gender-loving man, his legacy has gone relatively unnoticed outside of LGBTQ+-focused history books. Netflix hopes to remedy this with the new film Rustin, currently playing in select theaters and streaming on its platform beginning on Friday, Nov. 17.
Thanks to the film, viewers can now learn about the legacy of Rustin, a prominent civil rights organizer who had a pivotal role in producing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The story follows him as he assembles the march and navigates both a complicated private life and the challenges of being gay in the early '60s.
Several players from the cast and crew of Rustin are part of the queer community, among them director George C. Wolfe (who is also a playwright and theater director); screenplay co-writer Dustin Lance Black; actor Colman Domingo; and actress Lilli Kay, to name a few. Other members of the all-star cast include Chris Rock, Audra McDonald and Da'Vine Joy Randolph.
Wolfe said that he just happened to already be "obsessed" with Bayard Rustin when producer Bruce Cohen called to inquire if he would like to be involved.
The five-time Tony Award winner described the activist Rustin as "someone very committed to protecting and honoring those who were on the receiving end of injustice. He was organized and a brilliant strategist who formed a coalition with as many people as possible. He was a very curious person and it is important to act from curiosity and not fear, because that would lead to attacking what you don't understand. Curiosity leads to finding yourself in other stories."
Rustin's real-life partner, photographer Walter Naegle, and lead performer Domingo attended a celebration of the new project at the Library of Congress on November 9, 2023. The following day, Domingo sat down for a brief interview with Windy City Times where he proudly spoke on always being out of the closet as an actor.
"[Hiding one's sexuality] never made sense to me," Domingo said. "I saw people hiding that part of themselves and feeling the need to present in some way. I always presented who I was and who I could embody. I couldn't set a limitation on myself and be true to myself. I trusted that the collaborators that would meet with me would know that my talent was limitless."
Wolfe said that Domingo was always 'a part of the conversation' to play the title role. Domingo described Wolfe as "one of the greatest thinkers. We had worked together previously with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. We were able to tap into the many other layers within Rustin because we are both queer and can look at the full humanity of a person, not just led by sexuality, but with his thoughts, courage and optimism plus his heart and organizational skills. As we both know, being LGBTQIA+ is more than who we sleep with. It was a great opportunity when it comes to the film Rustin to show such a complex human being who was interesting, thoughtful and messy all at the same time."
When asked one thing that he learned while playing the outspoken activist, Domingo said, "He was very funny and warm. He could sell ice to an Eskimo! He lit up a room and made people feel powerful that were around him. He felt that if people had access and opportunity they could accomplish anything. It is why he inspired young people so much."
There is already Best Actor talk surrounding the awards season for Domingo. He confessed, "I haven't thought about it much, but for this role, it would be incredible. I took this project on to honor this man and his legacy. I wanted to take him out of the shadows of history. If I am acknowledged, then Bayard is acknowledged and more people will see the film."
Bringing Rustin back into the spotlight is a pivotal goal for groups such as the National Black Justice Coalition, a leading national Black LGBTQ+/same-gender loving civil rights organization. The group has sent a letter signed by allies to the United States Postal Service to request a Black Heritage Stamp of Rustin to debut in time for Black History Month in 2024.
Rustin is available on Netflix beginning Friday, Nov. 17.