“Rustin” starring Colman Domingo / Publicity photo

‘Rustin’ Details Life of Out Civil Rights Activist, ‘Next Goal Wins’ Charts Out Soccer Player

The life of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin is explored in the new film, “Rustin,” starring out actor Colman Domingo in the title role. It’s a project a long time in the making.

Producer Bruce Cohen had seen the acclaimed documentary, “Brother Outsider,” in the ‘90s and was familiar with Rustin’s work. He produced the Oscar-winning film, “Milk,” which was written by Dustin Lance Black, and then the pair also worked on the ABC miniseries, “When We Rise,” about LGBTQ activists in San Francisco. When he learned Black was writing a script about Bayard Rustin, Cohen lobbied hard to get a chance to be involved.

Cohen saw a script way back in 2017, but ran into a big hurdle. As the team started looking for a home, they became starkly aware that almost no one knew who Bayard Rustin was.

“We were hearing that again and again,” he said. “Even people that should have — young activists — had not.”

Luckily, Cohen did know of one person who knew Rustin’s work well: President Barack Obama, who awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. In what Cohen calls “a gift from the film gods,” the Obamas had just opened Higher Ground, their production company at Netflix, about a month before. By that time George C. Wolfe had come in to direct. The team sent the script to the Obamas and fate intervened — they loved it.

“Fortunately for the legacy of Bayard Rustin, once this comes out in theaters and worldwide on Netflix, I truly hope and believe people will know who Bayard is and his name isn’t going to be lost in history,” Cohen said.

He feels Rustin isn’t well known because of a combination of factors. Wolfe has mentioned that history can be very cruel, and history often makes arbitrary decisions about who is remembered and who isn’t.

“Why George feels he was not remembered is that he was homosexual,” he said. “That was a huge problem for everyone in 1963 and they didn’t know what to do with it.”

As well, the day of the March on Washington there were many leaders present and Martin Luther King Jr. was just one of them. Although he was starting to become regionally known, he was not a nationally or internationally known figure until that day.

“One of my favorite parts in the movie is after King has given the ‘I have a dream’ speech and he and Rustin share a look,” Cohen said. “Bayard understands in that moment that King has now become a world-famous icon and is not just a man anymore. He is someone for the people. Now King has his own holiday and airports and streets named after him all over the world and that is who people remember. Bayard was not remembered but we are hoping to change that.”

According to Cohen, Bayard was out at a time when being out wasn’t even a thing. His grandmother was a Quaker and he was raised in Pennsylvania.

“He was not raised in the South as a Southern Baptist where he would never get the idea that it was safe to claim your queerness,” he said. “Quakers believed you are who you are. He moved to New York thinking he was an out gay man and he quickly learned there wasn’t such a thing. But he did not put himself back in the closet.”

The Emmy-winning Domingo is receiving some of the best reviews of his career for the film. Colman and Bayard have many innate things in common, according to Cohen.

“They are both incredibly charismatic, wildly entertaining, funny, a bit irreverent,” he said. “There were ways that he had to transform into Bayard, but there were so many commonalities that made him perfect. I was really proud as an out gay producer to cast an out gay actor.”

Based on a true story and directed by Academy Award winner Taika Waititi, “Next Goal Wins” is about the American Samoa soccer team, which is known for its 31–0 FIFA loss in 2001. As World Cup qualifying nears, the team hires coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) in the hopes he can turn the team around.

Performer Kaimana plays the real-life character of Jaiyah Saelua, who was the first trans person to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Jaiyah is fa’afafine — a recognized third gender in Polynesian society.

“I didn’t know a thing like being the first out trans people to play even existed,” Saelua said. “In the many years FIFA had existed and with more than 200 members, there hasn’t been a single out trans person to play. It was so shocking.”

Saelua was recognized in 2011 after starting to transition.

Jaiyah and Thomas start off with a rocky relationship, and Waititi wanted to focus on that.

“Without giving too much away, I think bringing in a character like Jaiyah into Thomas’ world helps his character move towards the place he needs to be at the end of the film,” he said.

The director was blown away by a documentary on the team. He had been away from New Zealand and the Pacific for many years and wanted to come home.

“The story was uplifting for me, but also for Polynesians, to be able to see ourselves and poke fun at ourselves for being the worst soccer team in the world,” Waititi said. “But also — where do you go to from there? It showcases our sensibilities in the Pacific and the way we really live. A lot of people, when you think Maori, will think of a warrior doing a war dance and there is so much more to us. For us, it’s putting brown people on films so that other brown people can be inspired.”

“Rustin” is now in select theaters and on Netflix 

“Next Goal Wins” is in area theaters