How ‘Rustin’ Cowriter Found the Mischievous Humor Within the Stature of a Civil Rights Icon

TheWrap Magazine: “Rustin was into pranks and jokes, and I felt like that played into his brilliance as a strategist,” says screenwriter Julian Breece

Rustin
Colman Domingo in "Rustin" (Netflix)

A version of this story about “Rustin” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.

The 1963 March on Washington is rightly regarded as one of the most effective civil rights demonstrations in American history. George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” positions the March as the culmination of eight weeks of very hard work led by fireball organizer Bayard Rustin, played by a charismatic Colman Domingo. Rustin (1912-1987) was Black, openly gay, and, though raised Quaker, not nearly as ecclesiastical as his colleagues.

The film’s screenplay, written by Julian Breece (“When They See Us”) and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), wisely avoids the cradle-to-grave biopic treatment. Instead, like “Lincoln,” “Capote” or “Mank,” it zooms in closeup on a couple crucial months in Rustin’s life as he organizes the March.

“Any movie about Bayard Rustin had to involve the March on Washington,” Breece said to TheWrap. “That was his greatest feat. And also where Martin Luther King gave his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It was also a convergence of so many important people from Bayard’s life.”

For his work on the script, Breece drew inspiration from one of those shorter-timeline biopics. “My favorite biographical film is ‘Capote,’” he said. “I loved how it really tells a character’s whole story through the moment that made them great or the moment that was most impactful to other people.”

Rustin was not as driven by self-interest as Capote, but both had a flair for words and a devilish wit. Rustin, in the film, often is smiling – or suppressing a smile – as ideas form in his head.

“I did 19 hours of interviews with people who knew Bayard,” said Breece. “And I think every person I talked to mentioned his mischievous streak. He was into pranks and jokes, and I felt like that played into his brilliance as a strategist, because strategy is all about being able to catch people off guard.”

Breece expressed his awe that the character came to vibrant life via the performance of Colman Domingo, a three-decade stage veteran who has been gaining more visibility and acclaim with recent roles in movies (“Zola,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and on TV (“Euphoria,” “Fear the Walking Dead”).

“Actually, Coleman had read the script years ago, in 2016 or 2017, when it was set up at another studio,” said Breece. “He has grown in his notability since then, so by the time that the film was being cast at Netflix we were lucky to get him because he’s a bigger star with each passing year.”

Domingo and the role of Bayard Rustin were destined to converge, Breece remarked. “Even six or seven years ago it seemed like there were only five Black actors who were bankable, right? Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Terrence Howard at the time, and a couple others. That’s just how it was. And most of them didn’t want to play gay. So with Coleman, who is a Black, gay man, he really was perfect.”

Breece added, “Colman has the stature and he’s very distinguished, but he also has the humor and the playful streak of Bayard. And the way that Coleman transformed into Bayard – well, I cried when I first watched him in the first few scenes, and I’m not a big crier. But it was just so rewarding to see such a brilliant, perfect performance.”

The script includes a couple of very brief flashbacks to moments in Rustin’s life. One is of a 1953 arrest in Pasadena, which emerges ten years later as part of a smear campaign to take him down. The other – his brutal assault by police in 1942 for sitting in a front bus seat – is such an important point of his biography that Breece initially thought the whole film should begin with it. 

“The bus scene is so crucial because it encompasses Bayard,” said Breece. “His philosophy of nonviolent resistance, his putting his body forward on the line, and the way that his beating in public forced people to see who they really are. It’s a moment of such injustice and so that’s why I thought it should be at the top of the film.”

Director Wolfe, however, opted to move the bus scene later and open with the sight of Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old Black girl who in 1960 was escorted through a shrieking mob to attend a desegregated elementary school in New Orleans.

Breece fully agreed. “I just love what George did,” he said. “The bus scene flashback is still in the film, but George’s decision to open with Ruby Bridges was perfect. It’s a gut wrenching moment in history and the way that it was shot was so moving and fabulous.” 

The film’s final scene, which takes place immediately after the March’s conclusion and is based in truth, always felt like a signature moment, to cap Rustin’s life story. Without giving the details away, the ending features a simple gesture that’s all about the man’s get-the-job-done doctrine.

“In the movie, you see all these big personalities, these people who want the glory,” said Breece. “Bayard was not like that at all.”

He added, “In the end, we wanted to encapsulate that Bayard stayed very true to his mission, which for him was Black freedom and not just for Black people. He felt like Black freedom freed everybody. He wanted all humans to be respected and have dignity. In that moment, after the March, he was content with what he had achieved. And that’s just who he was.”

This story about “Rustin” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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