"When you're a writer, you never know what the final movie is going to turn out to be," admits Julian Breece.
Breece is the screenwriter behind Rustin, the George C. Wolfe-directed biopic about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. As scripted by Breece and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, the film centers around the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which saw an estimated 250,000 people gather in the nation's capital. Rustin (played by Colman Domingo) was the main architect behind the march and a close adviser to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen in the movie).
"This is my first job as a feature writer, but going into it, I knew the selling point would be the March on Washington," Breece explains. "In 2013, the selling point was not necessarily going to be this Black, gay character."
That Rustin was a Black, gay man is the exact reason he was for largely elided from the story of the Civil Rights Movement. The film means to return him to his rightful place in history: Standing on stage on Aug. 28, 1963, reading off the march's demands and remaining at King's side as he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
For Breece, a queer Black man himself, Rustin is a childhood hero. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Rustin's release concludes a 10-year journey for the screenwriter to bring his story to the screen; however, Breece believes that "everything happened the way it was supposed to."
A.Frame: When did you first become aware of Bayard Rustin?
I was a teenager in high school. I'm from D.C., and they had celebrations [for the March on Washington] every year when I was a kid, but Bayard Rustin was never mentioned. At the time, I was coming to terms with the fact that my being gay was not a phase, and there's an activist and journalist named Keith Boykin who had a blog. He was one of the few visible gay Black men with an internet presence in the late '90s and early 2000s, and I would go to his site because he had a career and relationships and all these things I did not see in my immediate environment. He would also post histories of queer Black people — people who you wouldn't usually hear about — and Bayard was one of those.
James Baldwin has always been a hero of mine, but the arts felt like a place you could go as a gay person and feel embraced. My mother was a dancer, so I knew she was pretty liberal, even though the people in my community weren't. However, the idea that Martin Luther King Jr., a religious figure, was mentored by a gay man just blew my mind! I learned more about him in college, and then when the opportunity for the film came around, I felt like I had to be a part of it. I was so fascinated by him, and there were parts of his history that I thought weren't being covered in the short blurbs about him. I wanted to be a part of telling his whole story.
Was there anything that surprised you when you started to dig deeper into who he was and what he achieved?
What surprised me most was how close he and King were. They had a mentor-mentee relationship, but it was also very much father-son. In many ways, there was a degree to which Bayard raised King as a leader. That arc was important for me to portray in the film, because it was the truth. King and his family had deep affection and respect for Bayard Rustin, and his sexuality was not a factor. That was just a matter of politics when he had to separate from Bayard. King is probably the most iconic religious figure of the modern era, so having that revealed to people automatically turns a lot on its head.
The other thing was the narrative around Bayard being out. I found it very empowering that he was out. He was brave, he was courageous and proud, but he's human. I wanted to get to the bottom of how he could do it. The reality was that Bayard also had a lot of deep shame and deep wounds, even though he was brave. His ability to be out came from his convictions about truth and equality. For him, it was a case of, 'I can't say that I radically believe in equality and that anything that goes against the truth is violence if I'm not living it. So, yes, I am homosexual.' Also, the relationships that he had with other Black queer people in the movement went unrecorded for obvious reasons. It was dangerous for those people to be outed. Bayard's intimate relationships with white men have been recorded, but not his deep friendship and affection and camaraderie with other queer Black men.
This has been a 10-year journey for you, and this project has passed through many hands to get here. How did you ensure your vision and intention were maintained in that process?
You have an interesting character, and the history, and there's King, but it was really important for me to find a personal story for Bayard that felt so solid that no matter what happened, it would remain. I felt like I had a duty to him, and I was obsessed with feeling like I got it right. It was very difficult to get that story, and I talked to anyone who I could get in contact with. I did one-on-one interviews and met with people who knew Bayard at the time and had intimate relationships with him. Some of them have passed now, and I'm grateful to have been able to speak to them. I really wanted to get to know who Bayard was. The way I found into his personal story was the [romantic] triangle with Tom, played by Gus Halper, and Elias Taylor, played by Johnny Ramey. I really felt strongly about that. We're fortunate that now we get to see more narratives — although perhaps still not enough — about queer people, and we've seen the dynamic of one person being out and having to pull the other into being emotionally available and accepting himself. It's different for Bayard, a Black man in 1963. Elias is a reflection of himself that he's forced to look at, and through Elias, he starts to battle with some of the demons he's pushed down. I was really proud when I felt like I cracked that, and it still shines through in the film.
There is an assumption that when a screenwriter sits down to write something, they start on page one and it flows from there, but that isn't always the case. Where did you start the process for this? What part of the story did you start with?
I knew how the film ended before I knew anything... For me, I knew that it was not going to end with Bayard triumphant on stage, giving the demands . Because that's not the reality. The reality is that he went on to be anonymous, to be erased from the history. In the end, the triumph for him was the completion of making it through, of making it to the finish line, but also, finally, standing up for himself — the way that he stands up for everyone else. So, I knew it would end with him picking up the trash. My script actually started with a scene that is now in a different place in the movie. It's the flashback to the bus scene, when he refuses to get up out of his seat. I started with that flashback, then came into the present with Bayard being pushed out of the movement and isolated. I felt those were interesting reversals from beginning to end.
From there, I got the structure pretty quickly. Knowing that the march was his biggest achievement, I felt like the most elegant way to tell this would be to tell the story of this man through [the organizing of] the march. Those eight weeks were a convergence of his career in the movement, his relationship with King, the NAACP, and the FBI, who had been tracking him forever. Structuring it through the action was easy, but the relationship dynamics were not. It was finding a balance. But the structure was solid enough that George did a beautiful job with it. I thought his decision to have the Ruby Bridges scene at the beginning was beautiful, because it's a different walking scene. It fits in a great way, having a lone person walking at the start and Bayard walking solo and picking up trash at the end. That was a beautiful choice. George knows what he's doing.
You did your job writing the script, the director does his job, and then Colman Domingo comes in, and he is Rustin. He is also approaching this as a gay Black man with his own experiences and his relationship to this character. Was there anything that you all had not seen that he shed light on and brought to the table?
Colman is one of those actors who reads the script and analyzes the story in a way that a screenwriter or a director would. He is going to weigh in if he feels like something isn't quite true to the character — not just his character but the other character dynamics in the film. The best actors, their work feels like an extension of the writing and directing process, and the collaboration feels seamless. George C. Wolfe is a masterful director, and Colman's performance is a once-in-a-generation performance. He captured who Bayard is in the eyes of the people who knew him, but he also created a Bayard for people who will never watch a Bayard Rustin speech or interview. Whether or not they know who the real person is doesn't matter; this is a real person and a powerful movement in himself.
The response we've been getting from people because of Colman's performance is incredible. Even my 10-year-old cousin wants to be Bayard. He's like, 'I want to go back to the '60s!' I'm like, 'No, you don't want to do that! You want to be like Bayard, but maybe not the '60s...' [Laughs] That is what happens when you get a masterful character actor who has been doing the work, who has always been great, and finally gets the role he was born to play. I started on this project in 2013, and Colman got the first draft of my script back in 2016. At the time, he was a very respected actor, but he wasn't a name yet. There were maybe only five Black actors who, as they say, 'mattered,' and we went out to all of them but none of them wanted to play gay. They loved the script and were interested in supporting, but they not interested in playing that role. For me, Colman was an actor who had the stature, the chops, and was openly gay. That was the dream. When I learned he was interested, I said, 'It's him. It has to be him.' Luckily, it was. Everything happened the way it was supposed to.