Colman Domingo Shares Personal Connections with the Real Bayard Rustin

2023 is turning out to be the year of the biographical drama, with such titles reaching for the spotlight like Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon. This week, Netflix is throwing their hat in the ring with their own film, Rustin. Directed by George C. Wolfe, Rustin follows the true story of civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, as he helps organize the famous March on Washington. Grounded by a complex and moving screenplay written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, Colman Domingo stars as the titular Bayard Rustin, and he sat down with MovieWeb in Washington D.C. itself to discuss his experiences playing the renowned civil rights activist. You can watch our video interview above.

Elevating the Voice of Bayard Rustin


Release Date
November 17, 2023

George C. Wolfe

Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Jeffrey Wright


1hr 46min

Main Genre

Bayard Rustin was born in 1912 and, by all accounts, lived an incredible life. He was raised by his grandparents, both Quakers. His grandmother was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which greatly influenced Rustin to become an activist himself. Rustin was involved in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 as one of the organizers (along with activist George Houser), and he experienced firsthand police brutality through the Freedom Rides.

Rustin learned firsthand the techniques of nonviolent civil resistance from visiting India in 1948, and utilized those practices later on when organizing protests. Colman Domingo describes Rustin as a personal hero of his, having already been a fan of the activist prior to earning the role. The actor commented on Rustin’s accomplishments and what made him so special:

“As an openly gay man in the ’50s and the ’60s, for him to be exactly who he was, that was extraordinary. Especially to do the work that he was doing and knowing that many people in the movement would not like him, the optics of seeing him as a leader, or a voice, didn’t bode well with the entire movement. [And] I understand that as well, I understand both sides.”

But I love that he was very clear about who he was in every single room. I admire that. What’s not to admire of someone who’s grounded, saying ‘this is exactly who I am’ in a world that is saying ‘you cannot be that person.’

“He’s always been a personal hero. He was his own creation,” continued Domingo. “I mean, the man spoke with a Mid-Atlantic accent, and that was of his choosing — he wanted to elevate his language in the way he spoke. Which was, at times, like Katherine Hepburn, when he wanted to get a point across. I asked Rachelle Horowitz, one of his comrades, ‘Where’d he get [that accent] from?’ And she said, ‘He made it up.’ What a fascinating human being!”

Related: Best Biopics Ever Made, Ranked

Colman Domingo Connects with a Hero

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin

According to a press release, when Domingo was cast as the titular role of Bayard Rustin, he felt it an “extraordinary honor.” The actor first learned about Rustin shortly outside of college, when he was starting his career as a performer. Personal friends and family would point out to the young Domingo, “That’s a role you should play when they do a movie on his life.” Soon enough, the stars finally aligned. Shortly after getting the role, Domingo plunged head first into his own personal research of Rustin. He watched documentaries, read biographies, and dug through interviews of not just Rustin himself, but of the many people who knew him personally. As he explained, the process helped Domingo grow even closer to the real Rustin than ever before:

“The beautiful thing is that I start to find more connection as I researched him. First of all, we’re both left-handed. We’re both from Pennsylvania, he’s from West Chester, and I’m from Philadelphia. A lot of my nieces and nephews have gone to Quaker schools, and he was a Quaker. We’re both openly gay men. I think he was about six foot tall, I’m six foot two inches. There’s many similarities!”

“The more that I start to understand him, and understand the way he operated in the world, I find that there are things that maybe have inspired me to become a bit more like him in a way. The idea that he was very much a great civics leader, and he really cared about people. I think about his life’s work, how he rolled up his sleeves, it was our humanity, and making sure there was justice and wrongs were righted,” added Domingo.

He’s been an inspiration for me; I want to be closer to him. He’s such an extraordinary figure and I admire anyone who’s out there doing good work. I try to do that with my art, but I feel like I can blend that, and become bigger-minded with what I do because of these incredible leaders.

Related: The Best Biopics from the 21st Century So Far, Ranked

Bayard Rustin in Performance

While Rustin mostly centers around Bayard’s organizing of the famous March on Washington, the film also puts a focus on the other aspects of the activist’s life. This includes his love of music and the arts. Rustin was a tenor and vocalist, having performed in a Broadway show and recorded a 10-inch LP titled Bayard Rustin Sings a Program of Spirituals. One scene in particular involves Rustin compelling a small choir of his own. Domingo, a Tony Award Nominee for his role in The Scottsboro Boys, found a lot of joy in being able to bring that side of Rustin to life.

“Oh, that was great, are you kidding me?” gushed Domingo. “I loved that, being the song and dance man that I am. Bayard sang in this beautiful tenor, and I’m a baritone, and I worked to get my voice to the tenor. Although [director] George [C. Wolfe] and I made the decision to keep it in baritone, because it’s tricky when you don’t want to mimic someone.”

The beautiful direction that George gave me was to ‘make him closer to me.’ So, I would find that voice, and I would sing in that tenor, and it was beautiful. I would also play the lute; I did learn the lute [for the part]. You just turn it back so it’s closer to you. That makes it very human, very real.

Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin walking next to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Rustin

“It’s very important for men and women like Bayard Rustin to take center stage. Usually we’re in the margins of history, an anecdote in some way. But the idea of being front and center, I think there’s a lot to learn from that as well,” continued Domingo. Bayard Rustin was truly a man of many layers, but he was also a man of many friends, associates, and supporters sho shared the stage, so to speak. The story of his life is punctuated by periods of brilliant men and women, from activists to artists. So while Rustin is undoubtedly a biographical drama about the eponymous icon, it’s also something bigger.

“I love that our film in particular not only centers on Bayard Rustin, but you get a little bit of Ella Baker, you get a little bit of A. Philip Randolph, you get a little bit of these other leaders as well. That’s important, to know that all the liberties that we have now were done by ordinary people just trying to make a difference,” explained Domingo.

There were many, many people, and it wasn’t just one figurehead like Martin Luther King Jr. He became the face of the movement, but there were many men and women, Black and white, Asian, all of them that worked together.

If anything, it’s a message the world needs more and more. From Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, Rustin is now playing in select theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix on November 17th. The film was produced by Bruce Cohen, Tonia Davis, and George C. Wolfe. Executive producers are Mark R. Wright, Alex G. Scott, David Permut, Daniel Sladek, Chris Taaffe.

Watch on Netflix


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