Bayard Rustin mentored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II, lived a relatively open gay life in midcentury America, recorded an album, appeared on Broadway and organized the 1963 March on Washington. Despite his remarkable resume, though, his role in the civil rights movement has often been treated as a footnote in the stories of other men.
George C. Wolfe intends to change that.
With “Rustin,” written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” returns to Netflix to correct the record. Starring Colman Domingo as Rustin (in a performance already generating Oscar buzz), the film makes its subject the fulcrum of a turning point in the movement, marshaling the fractious energies of the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SCLC and labor unions to stage the largest peaceful demonstration in U.S. history at the time.
In conversation at the L.A. Times Studio at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, Wolfe discussed “Rustin,” the charismatic political radical and logistical genius who inspired it, the ongoing Hollywood strikes and more. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think Bayard Rustin is not a household name of American history?
At the end of the March on Washington, a person, a personality, a figure, a leader was launched into the international stratosphere. And that was Martin Luther King. So that’s a fact. And we tend to have very simplistic understandings of history. A community makes something happen, but we choose a star. And Martin Luther King was, without question, worthy of being chosen as a star…
The thing that makes [Rustin] an extraordinary figure for a film makes him a complicated figure for history. He was the most out version of an out gay person that probably existed in the streets of New York City in 1963. So I think that was at play. And I think that he did not fit easy into a mold. Life tends to be very, very complicated, and history tends to be very simplistic.
How did this project come to you?
Bruce Cohen, who was one of the producers, called me up and said, “Do you want to do a write and direct a film [about Bayard Rustin]?” . I was in the middle of working on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” so I said, “I don’t have the brainpower at the time to write it, but I’d love to direct it. And then around that time, maybe two or three months after the fact, Higher Ground, which was a company that the former president, [Barack Obama], and Michelle Obama helped to create, came into existence. So we took it there and they said yes.
Could you talk a little bit about the Obamas’ role as executive producers, what that looks like? And I also wanted to ask you what your reaction was when you found out that they were going to be involved, because that must have been a very cool moment.
Yes, it was. I had been on the President’s Committee for Arts and Humanities for the two terms that he was there. So I had had some association. It was very interesting because everybody that I like to work with… it’s really wonderful and thrilling for me if you are also a storyteller — if you don’t just come up with the perfect shot, but you’re invested in making sure that the story and character [are] revealed in every single thing. Costume designer Ann Roth, on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” she would literally stand there if there were 80 extras and she would go by and say, “You’re wearing that apron because your mother gave it to you when you were 7 years old.” She would go there and give them a character moment.
So when President Obama gave me notes, he wasn’t giving me notes as a president. He was giving notes from a storyteller’s point of view, because he was a student of history and a really good writer. It was informed by that equation. You were listening and you were resisting and you were subtly hostile the way you are any time anybody is trying to tell you what to do, but then you realize you’re in the presence of somebody who has thought about it and is careful and considerate. It felt very natural to me in some strange way, like I get notes from a president every day.
When you first read the script, what did you love about it? What sort of turned you on to say, “OK, I can envision what this looks like”?
I really firmly believe that when you work on a project, it takes a piece of your life that you will never get back. And so by the time you finish, you went, “Thank God that’s done.” But there’s this really weird dynamic that’s happening with Rustin. It’s like the more time I spend with him, and the more time I’m not actively shooting or editing, the depth of my appreciation for him as a human being, for the potency of who he was and what he accomplished, keeps growing and growing and growing.
This was a man who grew up in Westchester, Penn., and his town was segregated, and he was valedictorian of his class. He was a star athlete. He ran track, played basketball, football. There’s a story that he when he was offensive lineman and he would tackle somebody, he’d knock them to the ground as part of the play and then help them stand up once they had been knocked down and then recited poetry to the person. [Maybe] he was flirting… I love the idea that he was a creature of extraordinary force and grace and that the force did not exclude the grace.
He took this group of people who were so young and said, “All right, every night, I want you to think about this march. Think about every second of it from the beginning. Are you excluding anything?” He was training young minds. So that when people were driving to D.C., when they stopped at a tollbooth, they were given a piece of paper, told where to go, where to park, what to do. This human being, who believed in nonviolence, who went to India to study, became a close associate with [King], also had the brain to figure out how to make sure that there were enough toilets there, enough water fountains there.
Activism is not a noun. Activism is a verb. It’s what you do.
It’s interesting that you bring up the logistical challenges of organizing the march, because one of the most brilliant sequences in the film is the litany of how many buses, how many chartered planes, how many latrines, training Black cops from New York to be guardians… That kind of logistical prowess is also required of a film director. Did you see any parallels in terms of genius for that kind of granular organizing with your role, making sure that a film sort of goes smoothly?
Well, yes, that’s the short answer. I mean, the thing I emotionally identified with — I ran the Public Theater for 12 years. And I remember a dear friend of mine who also worked there and at one point I was lying on the couch in my office and I was shivering like this. And she went, “Oh, my God, are you OK?” I said, “Well, I have the flu.” … She said, “OK, OK. Anyway, I need you to talk to the New York Times right now.” And it was just sort of like that.
You must surrender anything that is superfluous to your journey in order to make the work happen. That was the one thing I responded to. I really understood that you must do the job, show up. Somebody asked me, “Oh, what was it like to work with Viola [Davis]? Were you intimidated?” I said, “They don’t pay me to be intimidated.” They pay me to direct a film that she’s in. I don’t get to be [intimidated]. That’s a luxury. If I’m busy being intimidated, I’m not doing my job.
I believe that when you have a job, two things happen. You either lower the expectations of the job so it makes you feel comfortable or you rise to the demand of the job. I think that’s leadership… I instantly understood the need to deliver, the need to be responsible, the need to dig whatever you need to dig out of you. And I think I understood intrinsically the need to empower those you are working with. A friend of mine, a brilliant set designer, one time described “collaboration” as a word that directors invented to make everybody feel good about obeying them.
And I had brilliant, extraordinarily generous collaborators. And that also helps.
One of whom is Colman Domingo, who plays Bayard. Was he who you envisioned all along?
As it was all coming together, I was reading a scene or making adjustments or talking with the production designer. It was like, “Oh, Colman could do this.” And then after a while, his name just kept on emerging until, in essence, it became inevitable.
What can you tell us about Colman’s preparation and your collaboration with him on developing the character?
I’m a great believer in rehearsal. So we had two weeks of rehearsal on the project. Every day before we would shoot, I’d clear the set of every single person, and it would just be me and the actors.
An audience can tell when they are in the presence of a truth that an actor or a director or anybody working on a project brings from a project that they’ve previously done. They can tell when they are in the presence of a stale truth, and they can tell when they are the presence of a truth that was discovered just for them. And so actors do a degree of work. And then every day on the set, what I like to try to do is create a safe environment so that with each take, there’s a degree of prodding so that the actors end up in a space where they become completely vulnerable, not just to the moment, but to the other actors. And in those moments, in those sparks of uncertainty, something new can be discovered that can be magic. And that’s that’s the process for every single scene, for every single actor, for every single moment that happens.
I have not seen recently as good a rendering of the divisions within the movement that existed around this time. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those tensions and why it felt to you like sort of a solid platform on which to build the drama.
It was an incredible moment in the civil rights movement in general. SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was, at the time, very integrated. Two years later, all of the white people would be kicked out, and it would become exclusively a Black organization. CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] was in the process of changing because it was passive resistance, nonviolence, and within two years time, it was going to become a much more militant organization.
It was many years since Brown vs. Board of Education. People were obeying the tenets and practices of nonviolence, but there was still violence being projected at them. And I think it was building to a moment of frustration. Something’s got to change. Brown vs. Board of Education was 1954. This is 1963. And still there are huge institutions like education systems that are not obeying the Supreme Court. People were like, “What is it going to take?” And people were passionately, ferociously committed to the nonviolent movement, doing the sit-ins and all that sort of stuff. But also people are getting tired.
One of the first things I remember when I was getting my MFA at [New York University] — I was going to say the few things, but that’s not nice — that I was told very early was, “Don’t start your play or your film where you could start it. Start it where you have to.” And you want to start it just at the moment where everything is about to break, everything is about to explode.
The whole march on Washington was planned and solved and executed in eight weeks, which is phenomenal. And it engaged the entire country… This is the moment where you’re feeling the emotional and political and intellectual seismic shifts happening.
And the film is focused on that eight-week moment. It is not a biopic. It’s a historical drama where you learn a lot about Rustin, but it doesn’t do the sort of soup-to-nuts. What appeals to you as a filmmaker about that strategy versus a sort of from–birth-to-death treatment?
I don’t know if this is fair to say, but Bayard was at his best going against all opposition fearlessly, something he had been doing since he was in his teens. Dedicated and focused and driven. And so you’re capturing him at his most heroic in some respects, but also at his most vulnerable.
And you’re watching, in many respects, Martin Luther King be in process. He’s a regional star who is rising and rising. And after that phenomenal speech, he becomes this international figure, and capturing that moment just before it just seemed so right and so real to capture ordinary people in the process of becoming extraordinary. And generally, when those moments happen in one’s life, it’s exposing everything — exposing the best of who you are, and exposing the most fragile of who you are. And I love that. And I wasn’t interested in the whole thing because that’s, you know, [Rustin’s’] too extraordinary. You know, it [would be] like, “Seven hours and the movie is still going.” We don’t need to do that.
There are some beautiful moments in the film where hurdles are thrown in his way by the opposition, including Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. And what he finds is that the people that he‘s brought around him step up and do the work in his stead when he’s distracted because he’s sort of built that leadership role.
In filmmaking, in storytelling, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a neutral choice. Choices you make either enhance the story you’re telling or distract from it. Neutrality doesn’t exist. I think the same thing is true in politics. I think the same thing is true in citizenship. What you’re doing either enhances the vision or distracts. And I think he imbued the younger people who followed him with that sense of responsibility. You’re either making the planet better or you’re making it worse. To hell with neutrality.
Given that the full name of the march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I did want to ask you a couple of questions about the current labor issues in Hollywood. A number of observers have sort of pointed out that by making a deal early, the Directors Guild of America doesn’t necessarily stand to get the same concessions from the studios that the writers and the actors might by holding out. Do you feel that the guild got a good deal, or do you wish they had held out longer and could have gotten a better one?
I think the Directors Guild has, prior to this time, proven itself to be very savvy … I think the directors made a series of smart decisions, and here’s hoping that the actors and the writers will do so as well. And I think there is an equation of perpetual catch-up because the world is changing and the technology is changing so quickly. So I think it’s very much still in process. So I don’t feel completely equipped to pass judgment yet.
One of the arguments that the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA have made is that payments should be connected to success, and in order to measure success, they need access to metrics of success. When you’ve made projects for Netflix like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” what sort of metrics are you privy to in terms of how the film does on the platform?
That’s a challenging question. I would say I’m probably 60% aware as opposed to 100% aware. And I think I have to take X amount of responsibility for that. It’s easy to become consumed in the doing as opposed to consumed by the judging and the processing… once the doing is done. So I think I would have to take a greater degree of responsibility as well.
Do you read reviews?
The first play I ever did in New York City got hate reviews. There was a tornado passing through New York City on the day that the review came out. So I found myself standing on the corner of 96th and Broadway with wind blowing me away, reading these human beings’ assessment of my work. And I went, “This isn’t that interesting.” And then eight months later, I did another project, “The Colored Museum,” in which it was like, “Where has he been all his life?” I said, “Recovering from your bad review.”
To me, it’s giving away power. I’m only interested in ingesting that which empowers me to do my job better… So I’m not interested in navigating, “Oh, was that what was good? Oh, but that was bad.” No, no, no, no. Let’s just end the conversation. There’s a line in “Sunday in the Park With George”: “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision. They usually do.” Click. Shut the hell up and do your job. Go into a room with actors. With the production designer. With the [director of photography]. And get to work.
There’s a line early in the film where Rustin says to King, “One of my greatest joys is watching you rise. Own your power.” But the film also proceeds to depict Rustin in owning his own power. I’m wondering if you could talk about a moment in your life or your career where you felt like you really stepped into your power as a creative?
It was probably that period between the bad, really bad review, and the “Ta-da! Here he is, folks.” It was that period in between where I got smarter and tougher because it was required. I was born in Frankfort, Ky. And for the first eight years of my life, my town was segregated. And so I was surrounded by a community that nurtured and supported me. And so from the very beginning, I was born with this sense of responsibility for community, responsibility for humanity.
It’s your responsibility to make it better. And any time you become distracted by silliness that has nothing to do with that, then you’re surrendering power. So that was the initial seed. And then getting the bad reviews and going, “Do I do this because I want some people to pat me on the head and say, ‘Good boy,’ or am I doing this because I want to tell stories, because I want to empower people?”
I dreamed of having a career in the New York theater. And fortunately enough, I did. And after the first or second Broadway show I did, I took a job running the Public Theater so I could give rooms to other artists to work… There have been times when the work has been attacked or there have been times where it’s been challenging and it isn’t me thinking about moments of glory. It’s me thinking about moments of responsibility.