'Rustin' puts a spotlight on a undersung civil rights hero

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TORONTO (AP) — Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist and primary architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who often worked tirelessly out of the limelight, takes center stage in the new Netflix drama “Rustin."

The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, stars Colman Domingo as Rustin, a towering figure who worked for decades alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and whose vision of the March on Washington — site of the “I Have a Dream” speech — led to one of the most indelible moments of American history.

″I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble," Rustin once said.

“Rustin,” directed by veteran theater and film director George C. Wolfe, is the first narrative feature from Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama's production company. Led by a powerhouse performance by Domingo that's already being called a likely Academy Award nomination for best actor, “Rustin” aims to celebrate a pivotal but undersung civil rights hero.

“So much of what he did was compassionate and fueled by responsibility — not arrogance but responsibility,” says Wolfe. “He had a brain that was organizationally astonishing. What would make him heroic was not fueled by selfishness. And he was funny.”

Rustin, who died in 1987, was an openly gay Black man, who lived through a time when being either was enough to put him in jail. In 1953, Rustin spent 50 days in jail and was registered as a sex offender — a conviction that was posthumously pardoned in 2020 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Wolfe, a major theater figure who directed Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and Suzan-Lori Parks′ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and created the musical “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,’” was initially drawn to Rustin as a subject after learning about him while working as creative director for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Wolfe, himself a Black and gay man with a laser-focus for putting together a production, identified strongly with Rustin's sense of purpose and his refusal to be neatly defined.

“My definition of myself is so much larger,” says Wolfe. “I'm not going to waste time arguing with you about what I can and cannot do because I’m busy. Clearly, you aren’t that busy because you’re busy trying to place me in a box. That I really get. It’s like: ‘I’m directing ‘Angels in the America’ a seven-hour play, get out of my way.’ ‘I’m doing a movie about Bayard Rustin. I gotta do my job.’ Can I get shame out of my way so I can go do this? Can I get fear out of my way so I can go do this?”

Rustin, a Pennsylvania-raised Quaker, was famously hard to pin down. The illegitimate son of an immigrant from the West Indies, he was a communist, then a socialist and pacifist who believed strongly in nonviolent protest. During World War II, he spent 28 months in prison for refusing military service. Later, he became a prominent supporter of Israel.

After personal experiences of discrimination, he became committed to eradicating segregation. Rustin helped organize the first freedom rides and once spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang after being arrested on one ride. He was a central planner of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott.

Former President Obama, who awarded Rustin the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 2013, gave some suggestions to Wolfe after seeing a cut of the film.

“His notes were very smart and very thorough and they were deeply helpful,” says Wolfe. “Nobody loves hearing notes. But it’s helpful when they’re smart.”

“Rustin,” which will open in select theaters Nov. 3 and arrive on Netflix on Nov. 17, is Wolfe's second straight film for the streaming service, following the Oscar-nominated “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The 2020 film featured Chadwick Boseman in one of his final performances. Wolfe acknowledges there would have been a part for Boseman in “Rustin.”

“Without question,” he says. “We had talked about working together. He sent me a script to look at, I sent him something I had written. So it’s very much to me an incomplete conversation.”

“Rustin” dramatizes the frenetic work ahead of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Rustin's balancing of many competing factions, from the NAACP to labor unions and police forces. The supporting cast includes Chris Rock as NAACP director Roy Wilkins, Jeffrey Wright as Baptist pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Audra McDonald as activist Ella Baker and Aml Ameen as King.

“People never remember the work. It is the collective,” says Wolfe “When one person gives one of the greatest oratory speeches ever in the history of this county, it's totally understandable. But that sense of the collective and what it takes to do the thing needs to be honored.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP