Why 'Rustin,' new biopic of forgotten gay civil rights leader, is the role of Colman Domingo's lifetime

"The reason why it's taken so long for Bayard's story to be told is in large part because he was gay," says director George C. Wolfe.

George C. Wolfe cuts right to the chase when explaining why most people have never heard of Bayard Rustin, despite the fact that he was one of the most important figures in America's civil rights movement and organized the historic March on Washington in 1963 that spawned Martin Luther King Jr.'s famed "I Have a Dream" speech.

"The reason why it's taken so long for Bayard's story to be told is in large part because he was gay," says Wolfe, who co-wrote and directed the rousing new biopic Rustin, premiering on Netflix this weekend. "And I think that's been a complicated reality for people to figure out how to embrace the poetic, monumental figures, and the complexity of who he was. So all the things that make him a brilliant character for a film, I think have been historically complicated."

"He was in the shadows of history, and that's where the keepers of history decided he live," says Colman Domingo, who Wolfe cast as his lead after working with him on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and who is drawing early Oscar buzz for his tour de force portrayal. "Because of the civil rights movement, and the optics of Rustin, they thought he would be a distraction in many ways [because] he was an openly gay man. He was also many other things. He was a Quaker. He was an athlete. He was left-handed. He was a tenor. He played the lute…. He did many, many things, and that felt disruptive to the movement."

Colman Domingo in
Colman Domingo (left) plays Bayard Rustin (right) in Rustin. (Everett Collection, Getty Images)

Domingo, 53, says he related to Rustin, who died in 1987 at the age of 75, in ways that are both public and private.

"I think one [way] in particular is the fact that we are both openly gay men navigating this world and not wanting to marginalize ourselves just by who we sleep with, but to look at our thoughts and our ideas and what we believe in, what we're passionate about," the actor says. "Who I sleep with, that's just a footnote. But that shouldn't be central. I'm much more interesting than any of that stuff. You know what I mean? But I don't want to deny that part of me either. So I think we're very similar in that way. In terms of the man that I've been able to research and figure out… I think I found someone who was charismatic and a little messy and funny and weird and spirited and truly, he was very well beloved.

There's a beautiful synchronicity to Rustin's casting. On one hand, you have its subject finally given the spotlight he's long deserved; on the other, there's the man playing him, Domingo, a veteran actor whose consistently potent performances in projects like Fear the Walking Dead, If Beale Street Could Talk, Euphoria, Zola and Ma Rainey have made him one of the most respected actors in the industry — but who has rarely been the lead.

It's why Rustin feels like the role of a lifetime for Domingo.

"I'll say yes," the actor says of the designation. "Because I think there's a connection to my soul and to what I care about, to what I think film could be, to what I think the world could be. It's purposeful. It's something you feel like you wait a long time in your career to get, and hopefully you get one opportunity. Hopefully you get one. Some people get a few, which is awesome. But if you can get one where you feel like, if I did this film and that's all I did, if that was it, if that was it for my career, I'd be good."

Rustin is now playing in select theaters and premieres on Nov. 17 on Netflix.