Seasoned actor Colman Domingo gets a long deserved breakthrough in Rustin. He’s outstanding as the late gay civil rights activist and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, who was messy, but brilliant; instrumental yet doubly oppressed and misunderstood. Rustin also has waited a long time for this spotlight.
At a promo event at the Roxy Hotel in NYC, I got to talk to the gay star about this important assignment.
Hello, Colman. Is this the role of a lifetime?
Absolutely. To play one of your heroes, one I discovered when I was in college and couldn’t shake it…You never think you’ll play your heroes. But people kept telling me for years, “You’ve got to play Rustin”.
Did you study the clipped way he spoke?
Yes. It was sort of Mid Atlantic studded with a little British at times. I asked [civil rights organizer] Rachelle Horowitz about it and she said, “Oh, Bayard made that up.” He used it as a tool, to frame himself. He was such a unique man, so he adopted those speech patterns to match. If you listen to him speak, he goes in and out of it.
At another event, Rustin director George C. Wolfe said that when Bayard played football in school, if he knocked an opponent down, he’d lift them up and recite a poem to them.
That’s true! That tells you so much about who he was. Charming, funny, intelligent…and he was sexual. He was out.
In the movie, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is portrayed as having stood by Rustin when his sexuality flared up as an issue. Is that true?
Yes, he did stand by him. He wasn’t homophobic.
And it was an even more difficult time.
There were so many rumors back then. If you were cohorts with a gay man, people started murmuring. [Politician/pastor] Adam Clayton Powell actually started rumors about Dr. King and Bayard Rustin.
Why? Was he jealous?
Yes. He wanted to be top dog. They [the activists] weren’t unified. There were so many different groups. Bayard wanted to unify the groups.
As a black, gay actor, you’ve always worked, but this feels like a next level opportunity.
I’ve been working for 33 years in the business. The beautiful thing is, when an opportunity like this came, I was prepared and ready because it was a long time coming. I’ve been a supporting player and producers have depended on me.
You’re a unifier, like Bayard!
Domingo then did a Q&A with Slave Play author Jeremy O. Harris (who cowrote the film Zola, which Domingo acted in). “I got teary when the movie referred to Uncle Bayard,” remarked Harris. “There are so many Uncle Bayards who come to Thanksgiving dinner with a ‘roommate’ they’ve lived with for 10 years. I’m glad you unlocked Uncle Bayard,” he added, looking at Domingo.
Another Colman Domingo movie, another Q&A. The Color Purple (an adaptation of the stage musical that was based on the Alice Walker book that the 1985 movie was based on) had a special screening, followed by a Q&A featuring screenwriter Marcus Gardley. Domingo plays the snarling farmer Mister, who’s abusive to Celie (Fantasia Barrino)…and while I can’t yet divulge details about the movie (which opens in theaters on December 25), I can report what Gardley told the assembled. He revealed that he’s been obsessed with The Color Purple since he stole the book from the library as age 13, after his family watched the 1985 film version and the grownups were reduced to tears. “We all have a person like Celie in our lives,” he noted. “Resilient, perceived as quiet, is in the shadows. They all have power.”
But as great of a role as Celie is, Gardley said that Fantasia—who played it on Broadway in 2007–originally didn’t want to do the movie “because it was so painful for her to do that part. I kept telling everybody, ‘It has to be her.’ The director went to her house and said, ‘I’m going to stay here…’ ” She changed her mind.
The romantic aspect between Celie and button pushing blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) “was very important,” added Gardley. “That’s part of the reason I got the job. My pitch led off with, ‘This is a love story between two women’. It was the most important thing to Alice Walker. In the original film, there was not enough of the romantic love between Celie and Shug. I wanted the love story to be prominent and didn’t want to brush over that these two women are in love.”
I then spoke privately to Gardley, who told me he identifies as queer. As for the characters, he said he feels that while Shug is bisexual, Celie is a lesbian. “She just needed to be awakened!” I remarked. “Celie says she hates having sex with Mister, and Shug says, ‘You still a virgin’.” “Yeah,” I replied, “but anyone would hate having sex with Mister. That doesn’t make you a lesbian.” We wrapped our chat with a luscious laugh.
Sapphic swimmer surprise?
In other Oscar movie news: Memes have been passed around claiming that Diana Nyad (the marathon swimmer portrayed so brilliantly by Annette Bening in Nyad) was once married to a man. Is it true? Was it a green card marriage? Was it before she was awakened? Or is this a shady attempt to make people think Diana’s not the lesbian she says she is? (Jailed mogul/rapist Harvey Weinstein used to regularly put out these kinds of water-muddying campaigns about rival movies, to win Oscars.)
I asked Nyad’s publicist for a comment and they didn’t answer, so I’ll just doggy paddle away for the moment. But I’m pretty certain the diver is strictly a muff diver. (No, I dih-in’t.)
A friend in the biz tells me, “Disney’s The Naughty Nine is about nine kids who set off for the North Pole to steal presents they didn’t get because they were naughty. One kid is from a big family led by two dads, who hug, so we get the point. And Santa, of course, is Black.”
What a wonderful Christmas gift for Ron DeSantis!
As for life upon the wicked stage…
Off-Broadway, Here We Are is the Sondheim/Ives adaptation of Bunuel films, about people who can’t seem to move. Well, apparently the show itself isn’t going anywhere either. I ran into one of the musical’s many stars and said I’d catch it when it inevitably transfers to Broadway. “Don’t count on it,” they replied. “It’s too weird for Broadway.” And so, I guess it’s…not going left, not going right.