'Hell no,' 'Rustin' director George C. Wolfe doesn't read reviews: 'It's giving away power'
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, Wolfe discussed "Rustin."
Q: Why do you think Bayard Rustin is not a household name of American history?
A: 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.
Q: How did this project come to you?
A: 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.
Q: 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.
A: 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.
Q: 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"?
A: 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, Pennsylvania, 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.
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