‘Rustin’: Star Colman Domingo and Director George C. Wolfe on Bringing the Civil Rights Leader to the Big Screen


Actor Colman Domingo has earned plenty of advance award season buzz for his portrayal of Bayard Rustin in 'Rustin'. Photo: David Lee/Netflix

Colman Domingo brings charisma and charm to any role he taps into – from his SAG Award-winning performance as Cutler in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to his Emmy-winning guest appearance on HBO’s Euphoria.

And the 53-year-old’s most recent turn in director George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, playing famed human rights activist Bayard Rustin, not only contributed to his 2023 TIFF Tribute Performer Award but is earning him plenty of advance award season buzz, starting with Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor.

Bayard Rustin was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a massive protest that advocated for civil and economic rights for Black Americans. The filmwhich is now streaming on Netflix, spotlights the life, legacy and struggles (Rustin was also openly gay, which caused him even more persecution in his time) of the man who, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., dared to push for a more inclusive world.

For Domingo, it was Rustin’s soul that he most wanted to echo on screen. The veteran actor was so excited to finally be able to talk about his film that the day after the SAG-AFTRA strike was lifted, he flew to Washington D.C. to speak with press about the film.

“He did his soul’s work,” Domingo explained of Rustin. “The guy was an organizer from when he was a teenager. I wanted to give that part of Bayard Rustin that he was just a joy, intelligent, witty and thoughtful about everything, as he was one of the greatest organizers that ever walked the planet.”

Similarly, one of the things that Wolfe, 69, loves and respects about Rustin is that he was ferocious in his fight against injustice. “It wasn’t just about his feelings, he was also a brilliant organizer and a brilliant strategist. I think that’s really, really important.”

Domingo believes that Rustin is the ultimate American, and that every American should strive to be like him: “Rustin made a commitment to take responsibility for other people and to protect them and to alter the trajectory of this country. He was very curious and was not thrown by difference. In fact, if you’re thrown by difference, then the next thing you reach for is fear and fear gives you permission to do any kinds of horrible things to people. Whereas curiosity causes you to lead.”

In his performance, Domingo ably brings out Rustin’s ferocity, wit and charisma. He is clearly an old soul who is able to slip into roles easily, but he maintains that playing the role of Rustin stayed with him longer than most.

“I think it’s still a part of me. I think that when I saw a screening of the film, I felt emotionally very connected to it because I went to probably deeper places,” he said. “This was something that was really right under the skin and it’s in a really tender space with me because I wanted to maybe give a part of myself as well that’s in Rustin and finding that Rustin in me in the way we made it.”


Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, who the actor says “did his soul’s work” in life. Photo: David Lee/Netflix



Domingo’s Gravitas and Transformation


Domingo’s work in this film is already being recognized with a Best Actor award at the upcoming Critics Choice Association Celebration of Cinema & Television: Honoring Black, Latino and AAPI Achievements, and will undoubtedly pick up nods at the Oscars and other award shows.

Wolfe enjoyed working with Domingo, whom he described as fearless – a trait the actor attributed to his loving upbringing.

“It’s because I’m from Philadelphia and we are from a working-class family and a family who just truly loves me,” Domingo said. I come from love. And that helps me have my place in the world because I know that I was loved dearly and my mother made me believe I was smart and beautiful and joyful I have a sense of history and knowing who I am as a human being walking this planet.

“So I think when you know that you can’t help but be fearless, you can’t help but walk in doors and believe that you know that there’s good there for you and you have a place you have a voice. That’s truly who I am because I’ve been loved.”


Left to right: Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King Jr., Domingo as Rustin and director-writer George C. Wolfe on set during the filming of Rustin. Photo: Parrish Lewis/Netflix



Wolfe’s Memory of Marching with MLK


The March on Washington took place when Wolfe was only nine years old. And during a recent interview in Washington, he shared a fond memory of Martin Luther King Jr. marching in his hometown of Frankfort, Ky. 

“Martin Luther King came through from Kentucky and conducted a march. I remember my grandmother took me out of school and had me march with her,” he recalled. “And so I remember holding her hand. This was 1964, holding her hand and it was very important to her that I was there with her. So that sense of this older person, holding my hand and passing on responsibility to me, just in the march, is something I carry with me.”

When it came to the responsibility of interpreting the legacy of Rustin, Wolfe most wanted to capture the humanity of the man. “For all of the characters, you capture the ferocity of their hearts, and their humanity and their vulnerability, so you’re not watching or experiencing monuments. I wanted them to be people.” 


Third from left to third from right: Michael Potts as Cleve Robinson; Ameen as MLK; Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins; Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph and Kevin Mambo as Whitney Young in Rustin. Photo: David Lee/Netflix


Wolfe, of course, has experience telling real-life and complex stories, having directed films like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and earning Tony Awards for his direction of Broadway productions of Angels in America and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. And while he recently told the New Yorker that “We all go on journeys to complete and explore that which we have not explored,” at 69, he enjoys a better understanding of his own journey as a filmmaker. 

“I think I’ve realized when you direct a film — there were a couple of projects that I did, where all of me could not show up because the material couldn’t handle all of me. So I try to now only work on projects where all of me can show up. Because then I believe I can apply all kinds of textures about myself and my understanding of the world. That’s sort of fun and very liberating to go, ‘Yes, I could do that. But do I want to do that?’

As for his legacy, Wolfe doesn’t like to talk about that. “Let somebody else worry about that. I just need to do the work,” he said with a smile.

Rustin is streaming now on Netflix.