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'Rustin' is the story of a civil rights icon organizing the 1963 March on Washington

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was the unstoppable force who made the historic March on Washington happen in 1963. The mass of peaceful protest is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act the following year. But Rustin did not work alone, and the effort to make that march materialize is the subject of Netflix's "Rustin."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Rachelle, how many bodies does it take to surround the White House?

LILLI KAY: (As Rachelle Horowitz) How many? Sorry, I thought that was the setup for a joke. You literally want me to find out?

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Yes. Because Day 2, we shall surround the White House.

RASCOE: We're joined now by Colman Domingo, the star of the movie, and one of the people who worked with the real-life Bayard Rustin, activist Rachelle Horowitz. Welcome to the program.

DOMINGO: Thank you.

RACHELLE HOROWITZ: Hello.

RASCOE: Colman, I'm going to start with you because this role is huge, and you're obviously in huge demand because you're in the remake of "The Color Purple." You've got multiple award nominations - all of that. So I'm wondering if this particular role had an effect on you, maybe outside of the industry?

DOMINGO: I'd like to believe so, in a great way. I think, you know, I've been working for a very long time, probably for a good 31, 32 years. And then, you know, I get this great opportunity to portray one of my heroes. For me, it's about, like, not only shining a light on one of my personal heroes, but it's also all the people who stand to the left and to the right - these ordinary human beings who were just doing what was in front of them to right some wrongs and make this world a better place. So if anything, it sort of has inspired even more of that spirit that I know I already have, which is to be in service with my work.

RASCOE: Rachelle, you are depicted in the movie. You dedicated your life to activism, civil rights, labor rights, and you started very young. Tell us how you first came to work with Rustin. I mean, you were a teenager, right?

HOROWITZ: Right. I was actually 17.

RASCOE: Wow.

HOROWITZ: When I was 17, it was 1956. And the world was then, I thought, falling apart. Emmett Till had been lynched. The Montgomery boycott was on. And the Little Rock 9 were trying to integrate the Little Rock schools. I thought I was a radical and wanted to change the world until a friend told Tom Kahn, who's also in the movie, and me, that we should really go over to this little office. And in that office, Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker were running a committee to help the Montgomery boycott. And we were immediately bowled over. Just seeing Bayard in action made me know that he was going to change the world.

RASCOE: You see that depicted in the film, and you took on working on the March on Washington as the transportation coordinator, which was huge. I mean, there wasn't, like, you know, social media.

DOMINGO: (Laughter).

RASCOE: You couldn't be like, oh...

HOROWITZ: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Just get on Google. You had to help bring these people from all over the country. How daunting was that for you?

HOROWITZ: Well, it was daunting, but it wasn't my first rodeo. Before the March on Washington, there was the prayer pilgrimage. Anyway, so I had been on those marches. But on those marches, I was a volunteer in the office that produced them, and I also was allegedly attending classes at Brooklyn College.

DOMINGO: Allegedly (laughter)...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Allegedly...

HOROWITZ: Allegedly...

RASCOE: Allegedly, while you were doing all of this. OK.

HOROWITZ: Yeah. Right. Tom Kahn was doing the same thing. Anyway, we did organize a lot of buses from Brooklyn College. That's a whole other story.

(LAUGHTER)

HOROWITZ: But...

DOMINGO: I love that what you were doing outside of the classroom was organizing marches. You weren't, like, you know, doing terrible things. You were, like, being in service to humanity - how wild to me.

HOROWITZ: But you know what really happened, Colman - I would register at the beginning of a semester and then drop out. I registered for eight semesters of school. It never got to be at.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: But you were getting a real education.

HOROWITZ: Believe me - Professor Rustin was more informative than anybody who taught at Brooklyn College.

RASCOE: Coleman, you and Rachelle have developed a really lovely friendship. It kind of feels like the past and the present have looped together. How do you feel about that, Coleman?

DOMINGO: There's something kindred between me and Rachelle, even that - how it's come about for me to play Bayard and then for us to - we - Rachelle and I - we've built our friendship very softly. Now Rachelle and I - we pretty much text every day. We send emails. We talk about what shoes to wear to an event. We - she sends me news articles. I send her things, you know, but we - it's been a really beautiful - I don't know - friendship.

HOROWITZ: We did not actually meet until the night before the last shooting on the mall...

DOMINGO: Yup.

HOROWITZ: ...And we had dinner together, and luckily, Walter Nagel was coming to dinner because Walter and I were going to the shoot the next day.

RASCOE: And Walter Nagel was Rustin's partner.

DOMINGO: Yep.

HOROWITZ: And I think, Coleman, we had a wonderful dinner, and...

DOMINGO: We had a beautiful dinner...

HOROWITZ: ...I - yes...

DOMINGO: ...And it felt so...

HOROWITZ: We had - oh, yes. And Coleman, of course, brought champagne...

(LAUGHTER)

HOROWITZ: And I ordered, from a wonderful restaurant here, Indian food...

DOMINGO: Indian food.

HOROWITZ: ...Because Bayard loved Indian food. But anyway, I mean, I think that in the course of that dinner, I turned 18 again, and I was reading Bayard for the first time.

RASCOE: What was it like seeing Coleman embody Rustin?

HOROWITZ: Bayard had been stereotyped and misplayed, and he's very complex. He's just not easy to portray. There was, of course, this magnificent acting performance, and Bayard came to life, and it absolutely was not mimicry. It was different, but it was clearly Bayard.

RASCOE: I want to ask what you've both learned about each other through this process.

DOMINGO: Oh, man. I lost my parents in 2006, and I was very close to my mom. And Rachelle - she'll send me a couple messages and she's - I'm sorry to be a Jewish mama. And I said, no, I love it. I need a Jewish mama. So in this world, we need to know that people are sincere with looking out for your heart and your body and your soul. And I've just come to love her.

RASCOE: And Rachelle?

HOROWITZ: I do feel - oh, it's a word I don't use very much - blessed by this relationship. So he not only is a good and wonderous friend, but he also is somebody who tells me that my whole life in the civil rights movement has come to a wonderful circle, and it's complete. He affirms me in a way that is indescribable.

RASCOE: Civil rights activists Rachelle Horowitz and Colman Domingo, star of Netflix's "Rustin." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DOMINGO: You're welcome. This was wonderful. This was a nice cup of coffee with friends. I appreciate it.

HOROWITZ: Thank you. Yeah, I love talking to Colman anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

DOMINGO: I'll call you later, my love. OK?

HOROWITZ: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.