Can Netflix’s ‘Rustin’ Catapult Colman Domingo To An Oscar Nom?

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If the summer belonged to Cillian Murphy from “Oppenheimer,” then the upcoming fall season will belong to Colman Domingo in “Rustin.”

The Emmy-winning actor of HBO’s “Euphoria” throws down the gauntlet with his portrayal of the gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin in George C. Wolfe’s biopic, which just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, where Barack Obama pre-recorded a message for attendees. “This past week marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and that March would not have happened without Bayard Rustin,” Obama said in his message. “As President, I had the honor of awarding Bayard the Medal of Freedom. Not just for his work on the March, but for a lifetime spent fighting for justice. This film is a way to share more of his story to the world. Rustin honors Bayard and the thousands of ordinary folks from all walks of life. Many of them no older than my daughters are now, who recognized injustice and stood up against it. Their work and their spirit continue to give us a roadmap for confronting the injustices of our time.”

Domingo embodies the icon so profoundly it’s hard to believe he wasn’t possessed by his spirit from the heavens.

Written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, the inspirational true story takes place during the civil rights movement when Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

There have been a handful of Oscar-winning performances in history where you watch an actor disappear into a role, and every scene feels like it could be the Oscar clip. Prominent examples include Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” (2013) or, Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Lincoln” (2012). Domingo wears the man like a spiritual cloak, sporting his missing tooth from a racial altercation. He is fully loaded with charisma, passion and an emotional core that allows viewers to feel like they’ve just witnessed the man in the flesh.

It can be difficult to get industry voters to watch films depicting civil rights and Black heroes, no matter how much praise the movie is receiving, such as last year’s “Till” and “The Woman King,” which were shut out. It would be a crime to see any best actor lineup that wouldn’t include Domingo among the entrants. Aside from recognizing the sheer brilliance of his performance, it would also mark a historic moment of representation in the Academy. Domingo would be the first ever Afro-Latino nominated as best actor. Only four Latinos have ever been nominated for best actor, with the last being Demián Bichir for “A Better Life” (2011) and one winner, Puerto Rican-born José Ferrer for “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950). Noteworthy, only five Black actors have also won in the Academy’s 95-year history.

Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King and Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in “Rustin”
Parrish Lewis/Netflix

But will it be able to achieve more awards notice than putting Domingo in the race?

What’s moving about “Rustin” is how it focuses on all of the heroes of the movement, from the top with historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen, who delivers a refreshing, more subdued take on the leader) down to what becomes a prominent moment with the trash collectors.

The movie doesn’t shove his sexuality into the background. Instead, Wolfe and the writers tackle it head on as they explore his affairs with a preacher and another with one of his closest confidantes. It’s refreshing to see it given a proper focus in Black culture.

Wolfe worked with Domingo on his last film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), and this could be the finest directorial effort of his career yet. But alas, we know the difficulty that comes with films like this in the Oscar race.

Two pathways exist to building a best picture nominee – through the Actors or technical branches. If Netflix can execute an effective campaign that finds Domingo contending for his first statuette (meaning prediction polls are in agreement that he’s No. 1 or 2 spot), a best picture nom could still be within reach, even without nabbing any additional acting or screenplay noms. The Actors Branch is the largest of the Academy, so the more Branch members that vote for him, the more likely that it will also be among their top 10 favorite movies of the year.

In the artisan races, it’s a trickier road. Lenny Kravitz sings an uplifting original song, “Road to Freedom,” that will surely be in the mix. The three winning categories for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – production design, costumes and makeup and hairstyling – are also viable. It’s worth noting that “Ma Rainey” landed five noms, including two for lead acting, and it still was snubbed in the top category. However, during the “sliding scale” era, the Academy recognized between five and 10 nominees, with members voting for five movies in best picture. If it was a year of a guaranteed 10, it’s safe to assume it would have made the cut.

It also could be a strong candidate for best cast ensemble at the SAG Awards, with other great actors such as Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald, Gus Halper, Johnny Ramey and CCH Pounder. Still, they don’t have enough moments on screen to make an impact in any of the supporting races.

Here’s hoping Domingo won’t join a list of other egregious Oscar snubs like “Selma” (2014).

Produced by Bruce Cohen and Tonia Davis, “Rustin” opens in select theaters on Nov. 3 and streams on Netflix on Nov. 17.

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