Rustin true story: Who was Bayard Rustin?
Colman Domingo stars as the Civil Rights activist in the new Netflix film – here's the true story.
Following a brief theatrical run, the biographical film Rustin is now available to watch on Netflix.
The film is directed by Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's George C Wolfe and stars Oscar-tipped Colman Domingo as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr and helped organise the 1963 March on Washington.
Due to his sexuality – he was openly gay – Rustin was all but erased from the Civil Rights movement, and so the new film tells his story with the aim of finally giving him the credit he deserves.
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, Wolfe explained how he had long wanted to do something to shine a light on Rustin's work and this film gave him the perfect opportunity to do just that.
"When I really got to know more and more about him, I knew I wanted to work on something but I didn't know what it was," he explained.
"And then, just as I was finishing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Bruce Cohen called me up and wanted to know if I'd be interested in getting involved in the writing and directing – and I was still involved with finishing Ma Rainey, so I didn't have a brain available to do the writing.
"And so it all sort of started to bubble up from nowhere, but it has been something that I've been dreaming about getting involved with for quite some time."
Meanwhile, Domingo acknowledged that there was a certain degree of pressure in taking on the lead role but added that by adopting Rustin's mindset during the process he was able to lift some of that pressure.
"The moment you're offered the role, first there's a little terror because you realise this monumental thing you've got to do... But then you have to just remove yourself from that and divorce yourself from that and just get down to the nuts and bolts of creating a complex character that's flawed.
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"And really being guided by a fantastic director and trusting the process and just do what I think Bayard Rustin did and his comrades did – do just what was in front of you day by day and build, so you don't have that pressure anymore."
Read on for more information on the true story behind Rustin.
Rustin true story: Who was Bayard Rustin?
Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 is undoubtedly one of the most famous pieces of oratory in American history – but it might not have been possible if it wasn't for Bayard Rustin.
As is shown in the film, Rustin was one of the chief organisers of the march and played a crucial role in ensuring it went ahead despite opposition from various quarters.
He had a long history in Civil Rights activism: he originally founded the March on Washington Movement with A. Philip Randolph in 1941 before he began advising Martin Luther King in the mid-50s, playing an instrumental role in his adoption of non-violent protest and later setting up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with him.
Rustin left his position at the SCLC after a planned civil rights march during the 1960 Democratic National Convention was called off, partly due to threats made by US Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr (who said he would leak fake rumours of an affair between Rustin and King).
But just a couple of years later the two men were working together on a new project – The March on Washington – after Rustin was recruited by his old ally Randolph.
Although it is now widely recognised as a major moment in history, not everyone involved in the Civil Rights movement was immediately receptive to Rustin's involvement in the march and he was removed from his original post as director.
This was because Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, had his doubts about Rustin and did not want him to be seen as the figurehead in part because he could be linked back to various scandals – including his previous involvement with communist causes and status as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, but also the fact that he was a gay man at a time where homophobia was still rife.
Rustin eventually became deputy director – with Randolph as director – and had an indispensable role in the protest becoming the success that it did, while he was responsible for reading the official demands of the march.
For a long time, Rustin's role had been overlooked, but in 2013 – 50 years after the march – he was given a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Speaking in the film's press notes, Walter Neagle – who was Rustin's partner at the time of his death – said: "I think George C Wolfe did a masterful job of capturing the urgency of the moment, the tension in the society at the time of the march, while, at the same time, creating a story of personal struggle, conflict, and, ultimately, redemption."
Of Domingo's performance he added: "Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Bayard encompasses all of his qualities – his militancy, his dignity, eloquence, and humanity. It is really a complete and complex portrayal that, I think, will inspire people to get involved in the struggle for civil and human rights."
Meanwhile, Domingo explained during his interview with RadioTimes.com that he was able to get a better understanding of Rustin by speaking to Naegle and studying the period.
"I had a small amount of access that you get some personal insight," he said. "Just certain things if you want to ask questions like, 'What do they like to eat? Were they a touchy-feely person?' You name it, little things that help inform the character.
"But there was a lot of research to do... not only research about the person, but you have to do research about the times. Everything around it. There's an extraordinary museum that this man [Wolfe] actually curated in Atlanta, which is a great resource for that, the Civil Rights Museum, that you can find your way around all of it and you can contextualise all of it.
"So even, like, things that were on the radio, so you contextualise all that, so you can really create a full person and a full experience and how a person moves through space because of how they walk, how they talk, all that research goes into it. And then there are other kernels that you get from the personal."
Who was Elias Taylor?
Although most of the film is based on the historical record, the storyline concerning Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey) – a married minister and activist – is fictionalised.
No such person existed, but instead, the character is intended as a composite designed to show the importance of Rustin's sexuality and the obstacles that stood in his way as an openly gay man in the public eye.
Director Wolfe explained the inclusion of this character in the press notes, saying: "Bayard was 'out', but he was 1963 out. He was not 2023 out. How do you articulate where Bayard is in his evolution and where he is not? And so Elias became really fascinating to me."
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, he added: "The fictionalised element of Elias I think was... for me, on a certain leve, it was freeing. Because I was in awe of Ella Baker, I was in awe of A Philip Randolph, I was in awe of all these people, Adam Clayton Powell – complicated though each of them were.
"And so, to have a character that was invented gave a certain kind of freedom to my brain, but also was very important, because... he grounds the liberation that Bayard feels, because Elias is not liberated.
"Elias is doing exactly what he should do, if you want to become a preacher, if you want to become successful, if you want to become the next Martin Luther King – you find that wife, you find that church, you speak out about injustice, and pretend that you don't like men.
"And he becomes, I think, a really, really interesting and wonderful contrast to Bayard, so you understand the bravery that Bayard has."