Colman Domingo has more than earned the awards season he’s about to have. This great American actor, who is perhaps best known for his Emmy-winning turn on HBO’s Euphoria, has been doing standout work on stage and screen for decades, but not until George C. Wolfe’s Rustin — which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Thursday and screened again here, at the Chuck Jones Cinema, on Friday — was he ever given the chance to play the lead in a major motion picture. Unsurprisingly, he made the very most of the opportunity, which reunited him with his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom director, and he now seems well on his way to a best actor Oscar nomination.
In the film, which Netflix will release in select theaters on Nov. 3 and then drop on its platform on Nov. 17, Domingo portrays Bayard Rustin, a handsome and charismatic Black openly gay multi-talented force of nature — just like Domingo himself — who was one of the key behind-the-scenes figures of the U.S. civil rights movement. Rustin was a champion of non-violent demonstration, as was his dear friend who was 17 years his junior, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen). But he was also unafraid to ruffle feathers, and his outspokenness earned him the enmity of NAACP chief Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and Sen. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright), resulting in him being cast out of the movement for several years.
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What brought Rustin back into the fold, and ultimately became his greatest legacy, was his vision for and execution of a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which ultimately took place on Aug. 28, 1963. It attracted 250,000 attendees, was highlighted by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and spurred a slew of landmark civil rights legislation in the months thereafter.
I suspect that much of that information will be known to many people when they sit down to watch Rustin, the screenplay of which was written by Julian Breece (When They See Us) and Milk Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (When We Rise). What they will get out of the film, then, will be a reminder of the challenges and impact of grassroots activism, something previously depicted in films like Selma, Bobby and The Trial of the Chicago 7. And, thanks to Domingo’s work, they will gain an appreciation of what made Rustin, specifically, someone who many others came to believe in and work alongside.
It’s moving to see someone finally given their due, even if they’re not around to see it. Rustin died in 1987, but in 2013 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by a fellow one-time community organizer, Barack Obama — who, with his wife Michelle Obama, through their Netflix-associated production company Higher Ground, also served as an executive producer of Rustin. Rustin further celebrates Rustin, and gives the show business community an excellent reason to celebrate Domingo.
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