Misan Harriman sits down with director George C. Wolfe and stars Colman Domingo and Aml Ameen to talk about bringing Bayard Rustin’s story to the screen.

Photography by David Lee
Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) wears a blue button-down shirt and dark tie.

On the Making of Rustin

31 January 20247 min read

During his lifetime, Bayard Rustin, the activist and organizer of the March on Washington, never received his due. Because of the politics of the era, Rustin, who was gay, was relegated to the sidelines of his own event and written out of textbooks that celebrated the monumental march that brought a quarter of a million people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

In George C. Wolfe’s (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) powerful biographical drama, Rustin, the activist is finally front and center, with actor Colman Domingo delivering a mesmerizing performance in the title role that earned him his first Oscar nomination. The film follows Rustin and his colleagues, including Aml Ameen’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as they overcome all the hurdles of planning such a large-scale historic gathering. Rustin also focuses on the organizer’s personal life, as he confronts dehumanizing prejudices against his sexuality, including laws that effectively banned gay partnerships.

Wolfe, Domingo, and Ameen spoke with photographer and filmmaker Misan Harriman, who just earned his first Oscar nomination for short film The After, to discuss the making of Rustin and the impact the experience had on each of their psyches.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) speaks to reporters beside the Washington Monument.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo)

Misan Harriman: Colman, there’s a scene that really just reminded me what service is. Right after Rustin’s achieved the unachievable, he continues to clean up when everyone else is going to the White House. And I do feel I have to ask you whether the weight of [playing] such a giant in our collective past was something that intimidated you.

Colman Domingo:
There was no time to be intimidated. It was just time to do the work. I think the more I can get into research, the more that I can develop, the more that I can find ways to free myself and find that part of Bayard that lives in me — and, like you said, be in service to the work and try to be a really honest, open partner with all my collaborators. That was the task. So I had to prepare my mind, body, and soul for the daily work, which is at least 14 hours a day of being on set and then going home, preparing my mind, body, and soul for the next day. Then coming in with some grace, some wit, and some fun, playing some music and singing some gospels.

So, by the time you get to [that scene], which we did shoot at the end, I had all of that underneath me, and I understood. I started to really, truly understand why unpacking all this, and figuring this stuff out, and working with George, and Aml, and everyone, what it was about for [Rustin], and how he has to remain true to his mission, which is about doing the work. Sometimes, as we know with history, it will shine the light brightly on some and dim on others. Bayard, in our film and, I think, in life, was very clear about who he was in the world. He was doing the thing that Dr. Anna Hedgeman’s dad asked her: Have you made yourself useful today? 

I think projects choose you because one, there’s a journey that you need to go on in relationship to that project. I really firmly believe that when you are dealing with something that’s challenging and monstrous and overwhelming, there is a smarter, deeper, hopefully better version of yourself on the other side of it.

George C. Wolfe

Harriman: From someone who understands British culture and the heritage that you have, what did it mean to you, Aml, personally to be taking on MLK

Aml Ameen: I come from a family of political speechwriters in the Caribbean, St. Vincent. My grandfather was a political speechwriter. My father was very into local politics in England and Hackney and this is very personal to them. My dad weeps when he sees this film. Not just about King, but Rustin and all the people behind [him] because he’s one of the people that wasn’t platformed in a particular way. So it feels very personal to me for that reason. 

To take on that opportunity, the first thing was I needed to find was not the voice that everybody’s used to hearing, but the real personal voice. Something that anchored my performance in the end was trying to figure out this idea of not judging someone by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That forced a stillness in me, a quietness in me, and a kind of sense of nirvana.

Bayard says to him, “You’re a star. Own your power,” which was captivating to me. George really was clear to me at the beginning of the process. [He told me], This is not the marbleized iconic figure. This is a younger man who’s a star but doesn’t know quite yet where to go with it. He needs that friendship [with Rustin], the companionship, that leadership to take him on that journey. So for me, it was a great honor to learn from this and to work with Colman Domingo, whom I’ve known peripherally for a decade. To see that journey [he went on], it was important and personal to me to be there to support that. And George — when you hear him talk, you realize this man truly knows way too much. To be able to listen and learn from people like that, it’s one of the honors of your life.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) wades through a tan bus with his hat in his hand.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo)

Harriman: George, there is an intentionality about what you choose to put your energy into. You did it with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and you’ve done it again with Rustin. When do you know what you really want to put your energy into? Because your choices seem urgently needed right now.

George C. Wolfe: Well, when I was younger, I used to think I was in charge of my career and I’m not. I used to joke and say [that] my ancestors have board of directors meetings. And they would go, Okay, you’re doing this now . . . I think projects choose you because there’s a journey that you need to go on in relationship to that project. I really firmly believe that when you are dealing with something that’s challenging and monstrous and overwhelming, there is a smarter, deeper, hopefully better version of yourself on the other side of it. And you are cultivating muscles from the project that you’re working on that you’re going to need for the next thing you work on. I think all of it is a combination of being in service and being available.

When I really got into Bayard, I became obsessed with him. Then I get the call and go on this journey. I became really obsessed with ordinary figures who do extraordinary things, and by virtue of doing extraordinary things, become extraordinary themselves. The civil rights movement in the United States is filled with these people. Celebrating that casual, casual, casual ferocity is just extraordinary.

Harriman: The film features so many talented actors. I wanted to ask you, Colman, what was it like for you — the sense of community in working with so many amazing actors? And the physicality of Bayard was interesting to me, from the teeth to how he walked. How did you come to embody that?

Domingo: Well, first I did copious amounts of research to understand the way his mind worked. For me, that helps the physicality [to] understand how he spoke, how he used language. I come from Shakespeare as well, so I go for the language first. And then there are interviews, whatever I can find about him, and then also imagery. I always like to look at very diverse imagery of where he is when he’s meeting with the NAACP, how and where he’s sitting, where he feels comfortable. I start to take cues from that — when he feels free and liberated in different spaces.

And then his vocal patterns [were useful] as well. He speaks about three octaves higher than [I do], and I would train my voice to be a little higher and pitch it higher. George and I would find a middle ground to make sure that it was still honest and authentic and really connected to me. I started to find his body, and I got prosthetics [to] take care of the teeth. But then there was a choice about how he uses those teeth because in images, he wasn’t holding back when he smiled. It was a bright wide smile. I thought he wore it as a badge of, not honor, but just to show the horrors and ills of the world. And then I had to find the essence and spirit of this man. I thought that was the most important thing.

And then I’ll just say this, George gave me the absolute dream cast to play off of. Everyone is a virtuoso, and they came in with such a great spirit to play off of. We’re creating this beautiful tapestry of so many Black people who have very different ways of being and moving through space to show that it’s about all these different ideas and then corralling them for the greater purpose. 

Bayard Rustin and Elias (Johnny Ramey) sit across from each other in a dark bar. Sparks are flying!

Bayard Rustin and Elias (Johnny Ramey)

Harriman: I’m going to ask you about self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I do wonder, because of the gravity of working, not just as MLK, but also with these icons and the other cast, whether you dealt with that and how you dealt with that.

Aml Ameen: Self-doubt, in terms of this role specifically, it was clipped very quickly at the end of the table read. I went to Colman [and asked], “How’s the voice?” He said, “Brother, it’s beautiful, man.” I did the same with George. My process is to lean into the energy of MLK and have people meet me like that. So outside of Colman and George where I needed to have my quick banter to understand certain things, no one really heard me speak like me because it would’ve given me that distraction. And that’s the kind of actor I am anyway, I just lean energetically toward that person and try to live in the space of that person, and it gives me less self-doubt. So I didn’t have the imposter syndrome within the context of this story. 

In life and career, I would’ve always believed, “Oh, I can do something like this.” Then you get to it and you’re like, “Oh, shit. Can I?” I first had to tackle the speech. I would go to the park in Pittsburgh and then eventually to D.C. [to rehearse]. I walked up to the Lincoln Memorial, and I stood there — that’s when I had my imposter syndrome. I was like, “How am I going to be able to stand before people and do that?” To think that these men and women stood there in their power and did that. I think that was an anchor for me as well, the idea of owning your power. Then you get supported along the way when you’re just hearing that people are reacting well to it. But it was really me sitting in the character and tackling, thankfully, on the first week, that big speech that gave me the peace to continue and serve the story.

Wolfe: But also it is not the story of Martin Luther King the icon. He was, at that point in time, a regional star. After giving that speech, he became an international figure. So to me, all the characters are in process, they’re all on the way to becoming who they’re going to become. All of us are clueless; all of us are brilliant. All of us are extraordinary; all of us are dumb. We’re all of those things at the exact same time as we’re figuring out how to become hopefully a better version of ourselves, and so was Martin Luther King. They were doing extraordinary things, but they were young, and when you’re young, you know and you don’t know.

If you’re seeing an iconic, perfect person, they are beyond your reach. If you are seeing a person who is about to turn into an icon make a mistake at the very beginning of the movie, and then at the end of the movie, rise to the occasion, not just in the speech, but in terms of the growth of the humanity, then hopefully it empowers people watching to understand they are capable of going on those kinds of journeys as well.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) stands up at a table scattered with papers.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo)

Harriman: I believe this film is a rallying call for what the voices of few can become: the voices of many. What, in the context of your journey or this film, gives you hope today?

Domingo: At the end of the day, every single person has the power to make a change. It doesn’t have to seem seismic. It can just be daily. It can just be being kind or telling someone they can do it. Everyone has the power to change and do something every day, even if it’s just saying hi to the person at the Tesco who’s behind the counter. That changes energy, that’s being in service to people, that’s actually seeing people. People want to be heard. That’s what Bayard did at his very best, I think. He listened. He heard people. He tried to find the best in humanity and figure out how to galvanize it and help move it forward. Letting people know they have access and agency in the world, it’s actually pretty simple. It’s just like George said, it’s being human and caring and believing that love does conquer evil.

Ameen: I think it’s the capacity of the human spirit under strenuous situations. Ultimately, when faced with great evil, people actually do care. I think that’s what we’ve experienced over the years. I think [people are] looking in the mirror and going, “Who’s going to be the hero?” And you’re like, “Oh, shit, it might be me that has to do something.” That’s what gives me hope under strenuous circumstances in the world.

Wolfe: I would say, I think the human animal is a herd animal. I think we have power in the collective. We have technology that strengthens our sense of narcissism. We’re at our best when we connect with other people. I directed the movie, but it was the collective dynamic that made it possible. And that’s where our power is.