George C. Wolfe’s miraculous new film “Rustin” is many things. It’s a biographical film about Bayard Rustin (played by Colman Domingo), an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement and a key architect of the 1963 March on Washington. It’s also a buddy movie with Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen). And it’s a process movie about exactly what it takes to launch an event of the march’s scale, complexity and importance.
What makes the movie even more impressive is that it does it all while peeling back the layers of who Rustin was, as a key Civil Rights figure that few know about in the same breath as, say, King, Medgar Evers (who is referenced in the film) or Malcolm X (who is not).
For director Wolfe, learning about Rustin was a discovery process that spanned years.
“I’ve learned in stages. I helped to create a civil and human rights museum in Atlanta, so I read an intense amount then. And then at one point, I was going to work on these series of documentaries about gay leaders, and then I dug in deeper,” he told TheWrap. “Even in college, it was my first exposure. Each time, I evolved, and every single time I’ve learned something new, I just go, Who made this human being? He’s so phenomenal. The range of things that he was curious about and that he’s explored — he was valedictorian of his high school class and he was a star athlete; and he sang on Broadway in a show with Paul Robeson that lasted only five days; and when he was an offensive lineman, he would knock the player down and then help him stand back up.
“I mean, this is just an extraordinary, very unique and special human being,” he said.
Any one of those aspects of Rustin’s life could have probably been made into a movie. It’s a testament to both the focus and the power of “Rustin” that so much gets into the while still retaining its focus.
While zeroing in on the film’s focus, Wolfe said he wanted to avoid such boxes as “biopic,” a label, he expounded, that makes him “want to run metal stakes into my eyeballs.”
“What you’re doing, you’re telling a story, hopefully, about a very interesting human being, and hopefully you are finding the perfect time that it should be set,” Wolfe said. He chose to set “Rustin” in a time when “civil rights organizations were starting to fracture… It was just this really interesting time and it was a transformational time for the country.”
“Then you put Bayard on top of a volcano that’s just getting ready to culturally and politically erupt,” Wolfe continued. “That dictated the storytelling. And one of the things which when I was at NYU in the playwriting program, one teacher said, ‘Don’t start the story when you can start the story, [do it] when you have to.'”
So that’s what Wolfe did — he started at the point that he had to, “not when he’s just having a bad day.”
“No, he’s planned this perfect march that’s going to happen, that they’re going to confront the Democrats and it’s going to change the whole world, and he is going to do it with his best buddy,” Wolfe said. “And then rumors get spread, and then his best buddy betrays him, and then he’s got to start all over. It’s the perfect time to start, not two days before when he’s ordering a mac ‘n’ cheese at some restaurant in Harlem. It’s when the world is about to shift.”
That betrayal came when MLK got spooked when threatened with a whisper campaign to spread rumors about the nature of his relationship with Rustin, who was openly gay. That’s where the buddy-movie aspect of “Rustin” came in, too; he and King split and have to come back together to get the march done. This was always key to Wolfe.
“It was very important to me that these characters not be mouthpieces for their polemics. It was very important for me that they be very much so in process as human beings, in process as leaders, in process of understanding how the politics works and how everything works, so that therefore you’re in a friendship with somebody. You are evolving and they’re evolving,” Wolfe said. “When that happens, there’s a chance for a betrayal, and in the option of human betrayal, there’s also the chance for redemption… There are these people who feel this incredibly intense sense of commitment and responsibility, but inside are human beings who are fragile, who are smart, who are tough, who are clueless, who are brilliant — all at the exact same time.”
And as far as the the film’s “process” element, Wolfe wanted to take the March on Washington known by all from our history books and television sets and make it more human. He did that by tapping into Rustin’s “organizational mind” — one that “trained a whole generation of organizational leaders.”
“One of the equations that is crucial to activism is the planning, the thinking, the order,” Wolfe reflected. “It’s not just the passion, it’s the machinery that accompanies the vision.”
He continued: “With the whole movie, I wanted to put people in the moment, not observing the moment. I want you to feel like you were in 1963 in New York. I want you to feel like that you were acutely aware that so many of the scenes that happened within the Black characters and within the gay characters happened on, for lack of better words, the peripheral avenues of Manhattan. In 1963 you were not going to be walking down Broadway holding your boyfriend’s hand. It existed in the shadows. In many respects, the movie to me is the story of people who have been relegated to the shadows and living their life there to all of a sudden it climaxes with them taking over in broad daylight, the streets of Washington D.C.”
“Rustin” premiered at Telluride and will play the Toronto Film Festival on Wednesday. It will play in select theaters on Nov. 3 and premiere on Netflix on Nov. 17.