BNV BLACK PEARLS: ‘Rustin’ star Colman Domingo shines through his art, LGBTQ activism

After years of being a respected actor in movies such as 2015’s “Selma” and 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Colman Domingo had a breakthrough year in 2023, with a dazzling array of work that speaks to his talent and versatility. For his starring role as real-life civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (who happened to be gay) in the Netflix biopic “Rustin,” Domingo is getting the type of award accolades that are rarely given to an openly gay, Afro Latino actor. 

NABJ Black News & Views is naming Colman Domingo as a Black Pearl because of his multilayered and positive portrayals of Black men who have changed the American landscape.

Colman Domingo attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Warner Bros.' "The Color Purple" at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on December 06, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Getty Images for Warner Bros.
Colman Domingo attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Warner Bros.’ “The Color Purple” at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on December 06, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Getty Images for Warner Bros.

Domingo was born and raised in Philadelphia, and his family roots are in Belize and Guatemala. He’s expected to become the first openly gay, Afro Latino entertainer to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. For his role in “Rustin,” Domingo has already received nominations for the 2024 Golden Globe Awards and the 2024 Critics Choice Awards. “Rustin” is directed by George C. Wolfe, who also directed Domingo in the Oscar-winning Netflix 2020 drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Domingo is also getting noticed for his role as Mister in the 2023 movie musical remake of “The Color Purple,” directed by Blitz Bazawule. (Danny Glover played the role of Mister in director Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 1985 version of “The Color Purple.”) The 2023 version of “The Color Purple” is based on the stage musical, which changes the ending that’s in Alice’s Walker’s book and in the 1985 movie, including how the story ends for abusive husband Mister.

During a Netflix-hosted virtual press conference with the Critics Choice Association on Dec. 6, Domingo had this to say about his reaction to getting his “Rustin” role and how he felt about doing right in his portrayal of this influential ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I was thrilled and also a little terrified, but I didn’t have time to be terrified.” 

Domingo added, “I knew I needed to get to work, because I knew it was an opportunity to honor one of my personal heroes, an unsung leader who is responsible for so much.”

Domingo continued, “I just wanted to find his full humanity, all the things that made him complex. He was such a person of size. He really forged his own way. He was singular in his being in the world, especially at a time in the world when it would cost him his livelihood [for being openly gay] and harm to his body in many ways.”

He elaborated on why it was important to show Rustin’s strengths as well as his flaws: “He was fascinating. I just wanted to make sure we played all those notes. Every single one. All the messy notes, all the brilliant notes, the wit, the humor and the vulnerability. If we’re going to paint a real portrait of someone and put them at the center of their story, I’d rather we didn’t attempt an austere version of the person. You’ve got to show where they’re frail, where they’re human.”

Rustin is credited with being a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, where King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Domingo said of portraying someone who had such a pivotal impact on history: “How do you really get into the heart and mind of an organizer, which I actually think is kind of sexy—the idea of someone who galvanizes and organizes coalitions of people for the greater good. That was a true blessing.”

Domingo added, “I’ve learned that these [civil rights] people who were organizing, they also danced and laughed and enjoyed and cussed and smoked. They were not just wearing suits and going to marches. They had a good time.”

He continued, “What I learned even more about my heroes is to really humanize them. That’s important too. No one is perfect in history. … Break them down so they’re a bit more like us. And then, we can understand that we actually have the power to do something like that too. That it’s not so far away from us. They are just as ordinary as we are. They were just set up to do some extraordinary things, because that was their desire, by doing that.”

As for the greatest lesson he learned from making the “Rustin” movie, Domingo said: “How to lead. How am I going to make sure that everyone feels responsible and everyone has space and a voice. and they’re set up to do their best work. There are a lot of people who are nameless in history who did the work.”

At a screening and Q&A for “The Color Purple” at the Screen Actors Guild in New York City on Nov. 28 (Domingo’s birthday), “The Color Purple” director Bazawule, Domingo, and several other cast members gathered to talk about the movie. They also sang “Happy Birthday” to Domingo, who had this to say about how he approached portraying the unlikable Mister character: “The only way I could get into Mister was in the conversation that I had with Blitz, which is how complicated he is in the Misters that we know. A lot of times, we see them as tropes. They’re just a villain. They’re just a criminal. They’re just darkness.”

Domingo continued, “But we know he’s human. We know he has needs and wants and dreams, just like anybody else.”

In addition to these two very high-profile movie roles, Domingo’s busy year included his work in television. Domingo wrapped up his long-running stint as a co-star of AMC’s zombie series “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was on the air from 2015 to 2023. He also starred in AMC’s “You Are Here,” his own travel reality series where he visited places that have special meaning to him in his life.

He had voice roles in Paramount Pictures’ “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” and Universal Pictures’ “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken.” In addition, Domingo was a co-producer of the Tony-nominated musical “Fat Ham.” 

Up next for Domingo in 2024: He’s making a return appearance in the HBO drama series “Euphoria,” as Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Ali Muhammad. He won a Primetime Emmy in 2022, for guest starring on the show.

In addition, Domingo is starring in A24’s prison drama film “Sing Sing,” whose executive producers include his husband, Raúl Domingo. Colman also has supporting roles in Focus Features’ road-trip comedy “Drive-Away Dolls” and the Netflix limited series “The Madness,” which is a conspiracy thriller.

Domingo said of his widely acclaimed “Rustin” performance and how it affects his outlook on his career: “This is the first leading film role in my career. It’s been building toward these things. I’m just dedicated to the work. … Good work is good work, plain and simple. … It’s never about ego. It’s to remind myself, like Bayard does at the end of the film, which is to roll up his sleeves, and to get back to work.”

Share This article on