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‘Rustin’: In Conversation With Colman Domingo & Director George C. Wolfe

Written by on November 17, 2023

Rustin tells the true story of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Actor Colman Domingo and director George C. Wolfe sat down with The Reel Critic to discuss the film, and Rustin’s legacy.

“They were just ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things.”

– Colman Domingo, ‘Rustin’

From executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, Rustin shines the spotlight on civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a key figure in the civil rights movement and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. — but as an openly gay Black man, Rustin has been largely overlooked in the history of the movement he helped build.

Colman Domingo stars as Rustin in the film, and, in an interview with Reggie “The Reel Critic” Ponder, explained he dug deep to flesh out his portrayal of the social justice leader.

“I wanted to bring his spirit and his soul to this work … I wanted to really craft a real complex human being, and that’s what he was,” Domingo explained. “This brother was a brother like no other.”

The film primarily centers on Rustin’s work organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and showcases the large community effort made to orchestrate it. Domingo points out the movement was not just a handful of key figures, but many, many people dedicating their time to fight for freedom.

“All these unsung people … their name probably should be amplified, like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Domingo expressed. “There were just countless nameless people. And that’s what I think is so important about a film like ours, and hopefully there’ll be other films.”

Ponder and Domingo also discussed the importance of highlighting Black, queer love on the big screen, and Director George C. Wolfe touched on making a film rooted in real events.

Rustin is in theaters, and will be available for streaming on Netflix Nov. 17. To see more from this interview, visit

Reggie Ponder: Hi, this is Reggie Ponder, The Reel Critic. I got a chance to speak with Colman Domingo and director George C. Wolfe about their new movie Rustin. Here’s an excerpt from that interview. 

Colman, my first question is, you don’t like people saying, “Who is Rustin?” And you hope that this movie will … 

Colman Domingo: I wanted to eradicate that. So you always know, you hear “Rustin” and you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about.

American civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, 1968. Location unknown. (AP Photo)

RP: So I want to ask you, who is Rustin? And I say “is,” because I believe you brought him to life in a way that’s everlasting. 

CD: Oh, man. First of all, thank you for that. I wanted to bring his spirit and his soul to this work. So it’s not just the list of anything I can find on Wikipedia. I wanted to really craft a real complex human being and that’s what he was, he was this very singular man. It’s like this brother from Westchester, Pennsylvania, grew up Quaker, was a young communist, he was an actor, he was an activist, he sang in a tenor voice and played the lute, alright. 

This brother was a brother like no other. And also, he was openly gay, which was also very much a conflict for many people who were fighting for civil rights, these other groups. Whether from our own or from the outside, from people like Strom Thurmond, trying to use the fact that he was openly gay against him. But he also was smart enough to know that people would use anything to make sure that the fight for freedom for all people would fall apart, in some way. He understood that. He was a close friend and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. And he also was the architect for the March on Washington, the March on Washington would not have happened if it wasn’t for Bayard Rustin and his team of angelic troublemakers. 

FILE — In this Aug. 1, 1963 file photo Bayard Rustin, leader of the March on Washington poses in New York City. California lawmakers, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D- San Diego, called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to posthumously pardon Rustin, who was jailed for having gay sex nearly 70 years ago, during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

RP: Colman says that you challenged him to know stuff and unknow stuff. What does that mean to you? And what is he really getting at when he says that? 

George C. Wolfe: Well, I think everything, to me, is about an actor entering a scene with another actor with a degree of nakedness and vulnerability. And I think there’s information that can empower you and encourage you in exposing yourself. And then there’s other information that can protect you, in a way. And I think that the whole point, significant points, of directing is to try to craft this space where the actors are very vulnerable to the moment, so that therefore when somebody does something intense in your face, that you respond organically and naturally. And if you have an armor of knowing everything, then you’re not vulnerable. 

RP: I love to see Black love on the screen. And I think that this movie shows some. It’s really tender and loving moments that you don’t get to see a lot of times. Can you speak to that? 

CD: First of all, thank you for that, because I think that there was something… not only do we rarely see depictions of Black queer men and love, but also — or sexuality — but also tenderness, as well. I thought that Bayard, what we wanted to accomplish is that there was tenderness that Bayard had with all people. Whether it’s platonic, or whether it was romantic. 

And I think that’s important depictions, especially when it comes to Black men and how we are perceived in the world. A lot of times I think that we’re perceived as being hard or violent, in some way, and they don’t know that we have so much tenderness and softness to us, as well. And the softness is not a disability, actually. It’s also a part of the thing that makes us who we are in the world, because we need softness in order to live in the world. And that’s what I wanted to make sure was clear, with my depiction of Rustin, as well, that he needed tenderness. 

Bayard Rustin, civil rights organizer, speaks from platform erected in front of New York’s City Hall, May 18, 1964, as crowd of some 3,000 persons rallied. Rally was high point of day-long activities by civil rights groups seeking school integration. (AP Photo)

RP: This film doesn’t just show Rustin doing it on his own, it actually shows him doing it with other people, and the young people seem to be very important. Can you just speak to that a little bit? 

CD: Absolutely. This is the thing that I’m really happy that we get to dispel, when it comes to any of these history films, that makes it seem like there was only Martin Luther King, or Ralph Abernathy or Adam Clayton Powell. To know that the movement was a lot of people, and everyone had to be a part of it, to organize this, to get this straight, to run transportation, to do paperwork, to run errands, you name it. So all these unsung people, the names that you think may not have the light shine on them, they were just as significant and just as… You know, the person who was doing paperwork in the office, their name probably should be amplified, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was basically one of the speakers at the March on Washington. And he turned into a superstar, but he was one of many speakers. But the movement and the iconography of the movement takes on Martin Luther King. 

And then there were just countless nameless people. And that’s what I think is so important about a film like ours, and hopefully there’ll be other films. I would love to see a film about Ella Baker. I would love to see one about A. Philip Randolph, I would love to see one about Adam Clayton Powell, all these other leaders. Cleve Robinson. So we know their impact and what they did in their communities. And I think that’s what makes us, we dive more into history and we know more about who we are. And know that they were just ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things. And that will hopefully raise up whoever’s watching in the movie theater, or at home at Netflix, and saying, “I can be a part of change. I can do it, too.” 

RP: To hear more of this interview. Well, actually, to see more of this interview, you can find it all on my website at Rustin is currently playing in theaters and will be on Netflix soon, but I suggest you check this one out at the theater.

Colman Domingo (left) sits with Reggie “The Reel Critic” Ponder to discuss new film Rustin.


“The Reel Critic” is hosted and produced by Reggie Ponder

Written introduction by Abigail Harrison

Transcription edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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