With Rustin, Is Colman Domingo Finally Going To Get The Awards He Deserves?

Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down the TV or films that are soothing, distracting, or just plain good with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy. This edition is all about Colman Domingo, and was originally published in September after the Toronto International Film Festival. His film Rustin is now on Netflix.
What’s Good? Colman Domingo. Period. The actor has been gracing our screens for decades, popping up and quietly snatching scenes in critically-lauded films (Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Selma, If Beale Street Could Talk) and acclaimed TV (Fear The Walking Dead, Euphoria) but despite being a standout in every project, he hasn’t been the exalted leading man he deserves to be — until now. With two starring roles in Rustin and Sing Sing at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Domingo is finally getting his due.
Who It’s Good For: At this point in my column, I usually reserve this space to tell you which audience my respective picks are for. If you like that, then you’ll like this, etc. Well, the thing about Colman Domingo is that he is so versatile as an actor that there’s a role for everyone. Domingo is one of those character actors who can do anything and be anyone while also bringing a specific gravitas to his work that is so uniquely his own. He has the ability to be disarmingly charming, menacing and masculine, yet soft, understanding, and alluring. Sometimes, he embodies all of these qualities at once. And other times, he picks one and refines it, reflecting it back on screen in a way that makes you look at it in a different light. Like damn, I didn’t know intensity could look like that. 

Domingo is one of those character actors who can do anything and be anyone while also bringing a specific gravitas to his work that is so uniquely his own.

When it comes to Domingo’s two performances at TIFF, they are shining examples of his range. In Rustin, directed by George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Domingo plays Bayard Rustin, an oft-unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement who was the chief organizer of the March on Washington working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. but took a backseat publicly because of his sexuality. Rustin was a Black gay man at a time when both put a target on your back. (In real life, Domingo is out and has been married to his husband Raúl Domingo since 2014). Still, Rustin stood strong in his identity, his convictions and led a fight that continues to allow for so many Black folks to feel more free today. It’s a bombastic, bold role that calls for the confidence of a performer who can convey the audacity to stand up to MLK Jr. and the vulnerability of someone who was told to hide who he was and refused. The movie never meets Domingo’s excellence, resorting to biopic cliches and a watered-down version of events, but in spite of the mediocre material, he rises to meet the moment. 
With Sing Sing, Domingo gets a film that is worthy of his talent. The beautifully understated prison drama follows John “Divine G” Whitfield (Domingo), one of the senior members of the Sing Sing correctional facility’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) theater troupe. He’s the troupe’s star actor and sometimes playwright, well-versed in Shakespeare and comfortable partaking in emotional acting exercises. Enter: Divine Eye. He’s a new member of the production, and the dynamic shifts when he shows up. Clarence "Divine Eye" Maclin (real-life ex-convict Clarence Maclin who is absolutely mesmerizing in this role) wants the troupe to do a comedy and challenges the group to create an outrageous production full of pirates, gladiators, gunfights and Hamlet. When Divine Eye and Divine G go out for the same part, their bond turns tense, and a riveting story unfolds of their friendship, the family created through theater, and the hope that incarceration strips away that art can slowly restore. 
When we meet Domingo’s Divine G, he’s a bit pretentious but it’s clear he takes acting very seriously. He’s also so smart he takes it upon himself to help his fellow inmates with their appeals and other paperwork. He’s hopeful and authoritative, living a life of dignity in a place that’s purposely void of it. As the film goes on, Divine G is faced with the realities of incarceration, the dejection of an enduring sentence and the rejection that comes when the world sees you are a prisoner first and a person second. Domingo plays this arc flawlessly and Sing Sing makes a quiet yet radical case for abolition without being preachy at all, just by showing the humanity of these incarcerated men and the dignity every person deserves to live their life with. It’s a stunning rumination on the beauty and healing power of art. The film is a wonder, and Domingo is magnificent. 
These two performances prove that when you see Colman Domingo on your screen, the question isn’t who his performances are for, but rather who has he chosen to be? And what will that character show us about the world and ourselves? 

Colman Domingo deserves awards not because they matter, or because they are magic, but because he is magic and his presence on screen is a gift. Shouldn’t he be rewarded in return? 

How Good Is He? We can’t talk about how good a performer is in Hollywood without bringing up awards. Even though we know that the current state of the award system doesn’t fairly acknowledge the work of Black artists, we also know when one of our faves deserve that recognition. This year, it’s Colman Domingo’s time. The Academy can choose from two extraordinary performances (Sing Sing is Domingo’s masterpiece but Rustin is the safe bet for award voters) or, if all is right and good in this world, Domingo will become a double nominee (like Cate Blanchett and Jamie Foxx before him). It’s not that Domingo needs awards to prove his worth. These performances do that all on their own. But Domingo has put in the time and consistently elevated every scene he’s a part of. He makes his peers better. 
In Sing Sing, he led by example and contributed to pulling brilliant performances out of first-time actors. In Rustin, he carries a disappointing blockbuster on his back, making other actors (like a bewilderingly bad Chris Rock) look like amateurs. Colman Domingo deserves awards not because they matter, or because they are magic, but because he is magic and his presence on screen is a gift. Shouldn’t he be rewarded in return? 
After every film festival, especially TIFF, there is inevitably a story that emerges about a performance or a film that will carry through to awards season (whenever that happens this year, given the studios refuse to make a deal to give writers and actors their worth). It seems fitting that, in a year when actors who don’t typically gain fame and attention are fighting for what they deserve, Domingo has finally stepped into his spotlight — where he’s always belonged. 
What Else Is Good?
• Another highlight from TIFF: American Fiction, film I can’t stop thinking about, or debating. I talked to first-time director Cord Jefferson about the fascinating satire.
Selling The OC is very good, you know, if you love mess, house porn, and watching white women weaponize their tears on reality TV.
Black women designers owning NYFW and pushing for more to do the same.
• As always, defunding the police.

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