The Privileges and Pitfalls of Making Movies About Real People

When Walter Naegle was first approached over a decade ago by producers who wanted to make a feature about his late partner, the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Naegle needed to be talked into it.

Rustin, who had been the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington — and an openly gay public figure at a time when few were — had already been the subject of the nonfiction “Brother Outsider” (2003). Naegle remembers saying to the producers, “What do I need you guys for? We have a very good documentary.”

But Naegle was persuaded, in part by knowing that a vast audience could be reached with a fictionalized feature, and he gave his blessing, starting a yearslong process of consultation with filmmakers that culminated in “Rustin,” directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Colman Domingo, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance.

When Naegle saw the film for the first time, he felt overwhelming relief. “Colman’s performance had really captured this person who I cared about,” he said.

At Sunday’s Academy Awards, Rustin is one of several historical figures who are the focus of nominated films. Other real-life subjects include the father of the atomic bomb, a lauded American conductor and the victims and perpetrators of the Reign of Terror in the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma.

JaNae Collins, left, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which was refocused after a meeting with relatives of the real-life Osage subjects.Credit…Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple Original Films

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