Oscars 2024: Colman Domingo, the Shiniest Star of Rustin 

Oscars 2024: Colman Domingo, the Shiniest Star of Rustin 

Domingo plays the American political activist Bayard Rustin and his performance has earned him a nomination for Best Actor. 

You’d be forgiven for having high hopes from Rustin (2023), a film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, which highlights how the Great March on Washington was organised by gay political activist Bayard Rustin. (It was at this historic and massive gathering in 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.) Unfortunately, despite being powered by the best of intentions, the one reason that Rustin manages to claw its way out of sentimental mediocrity and towards watchability is its lead actor, Colman Domingo. The actor is incandescent as Bayard Rustin, lifting a dull script with a performance that hits both playful and emotional beats with equal ease. 

Rustin is one of the unsung heroes of the American civil rights movement. The film highlights his role as the organiser of the Great March on Washington, which remains one of the largest political rallies in American history. To become Bayard Rustin, Domingo changed himself. He raised the pitch of his voice, losing the baritone that is natural to him. He modified his accent a little to resemble the lilt of Rustin’s speech, but without going full-tilt into the mid-Atlantic accent that Rustin and many of his contemporaries favoured. Domingo also adopted some of the gestures and poses that Rustin had in his body language. None of this comes across as caricaturish or artificial. Instead, Domingo’s performance is characterised by fluent ease and naturalness. Sometimes playful, sometimes earnest, and always real, Domingo is the only part of Rustin that feels credible. The actor is locked in a script that is so determinedly obvious in its storytelling that seconds after Rustin says, “Ma Rustin taught me that no man is less valuable because he picks up his trash to care for his own”, he’s shown collecting trash in order to belabour the point that he’s humble. 

Domingo discovered his talent for performance in college, when he took acting as an elective while majoring in journalism. He would end up dropping out, choosing to pursue a career in the theatre instead. From theatre, Domingo would eventually find his way into television and film. After insignificant roles as a working actor — and surviving on his earnings as a bartender — he found a life raft when he was cast in the television series Fear The Walking Dead. He would go on to have moments in the spotlight because of his work in projects like Euphoria (he won an Emmy for this role) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), but this Oscar nomination makes it a legitimate Colman Domingo moment. That it has taken so long for an actor as talented as Domingo to get the recognition he deserves speaks volumes about the prejudices and myopia of Hollywood. 

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