"To all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families," Dustin Lance Black said onstage at the 81st Academy Awards, "you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that, no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you. And very soon — I promise you — you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours."
Black, who was 34 at the time, had just won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his 2008 biopic, Milk, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major public office. (The film earned eight nominations in total, with Sean Penn winning Best Actor for his portrayal of the titular activist and politician.) Black says that it was Harvey Milk's story that saved his life as a teenager. "It gave me the hope to one day live my life openly as who I am. And that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married."
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In the years that followed Black's Oscar win, his promise was indeed actualized. In 2015, marriage equality became the law of the land. (In 2017, Black married Tom Daley, a gold medalist Olympic diver. They have a son.) Milestone legal gains were made, protecting workers rights and health care for the LGBTQ+ community, amid an increase in meaningful on-screen representation across all media. But this year's Pride Month ended with renewed political battles, as queer people, and especially trans people, have come under legislative attack through measures such Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, to name just one example.
"The arguments being made now are familiar arguments. They are the same arguments that were being made in the '70s with Harvey Milk," Black, now 48, says. "Arguments that were being made by people Anita Bryant, that somehow queer people threaten children — and it's just not true. And we proved it then, and we have to prove it again."
"The philosophy that finally worked was not to let straight allies tell our stories. Bless them for being our allies — I'm very grateful for that — but the most powerful way to correct the record is to show pride ourselves, so much pride that we're willing to stand up and tell our stories," he explains. "The opposition to LGBTQ equality is working very hard to make it incredibly difficult for queer people to share our stories openly and with pride, and that is all about making us less visible. When you make something invisible, shame often follows. Right now, we need to be louder, and prouder, and more visible, because it's that visibility that corrects the record."
In conversation with A.frame, Black looks back on the progress that has been made for LGBTQ+ cinema, and ahead to what the filmmaker calls "good chaos."
A.frame: In terms of being able to share our narratives ourselves and looking at the LGBTQ narratives that are being shared, what is your overview of the state of queer cinema right now?
Black: I am thrilled, for the most part, about where the world has gone, in terms of being audience members to queer cinema, [and] certainly where our business is now compared to when we were trying to get Milk made. It's wonderful to see that networks and studios are greenlighting queer movies and television shows. That was not something that was happening easily even 10 years ago. It was a fight. And frankly, if it wasn't for the success of Brokeback Mountain and that same studio, Focus Features, being willing to try again, there would be no Milk. And I hope Milk opened the doors to other films and television shows. I'm heartened that so many other filmmakers have stepped up to share their experience of being queer, because it's going to be very different than mine and very different than Harvey Milk's. And we need that.
I think it's really important that queer people rebuild our history, that we excavate it out from under the shame and the fear that kept it buried for far too long. And that's going to take a lot of work. A history is not a painting, it's a mosaic — it's going to take a lot of little pieces, a lot of films, a lot of stories — so I'm also heartened to see how diverse our stories are becoming, because I do think that makes us stronger. I hope we keep going in that direction as storytellers. I hope Hollywood continues to make queer films, at least until the point that we're represented in cinema an equal proportion to how we exist in real life, and in all the many shades of what gender and gender identity and sexuality are. This is not gay-straight. It's not even LGBTQ anymore. There's so many different shades of who we can be, and who we should be able to be. Now, that is sadly becoming political again. But — good. For queer people, the personal is political, and it's needed and it's necessary. In some ways [queer cinema] had become entertainment, and it won't just be that anymore. It is going to be a call to action again.
Even after a decade of progress, where are you still seeing the most room for improvement either on-screen or behind the scenes?
I think there's still improvement to be made in the world of acting and casting. I think we need more openly queer people who are celebrated enough that their name alone can green-light a picture. We don't have enough of those. When we do, we'll be able to tell more of our stories. In my experience as a producer right now, working on other people's feature films that have LGBTQ leads, I know that everyone's going to the same handful of actors and actresses, and they can only do so much. But there are only a few that actually get you the money you need to make the movie. So, it's about more actors and actresses coming out — which is an act of courage in our business still, sadly — and continuing to work and to perform well at the box office. That's going to make a huge difference.
Your work has always been rooted in activism. Right now, we are actively seeing threats to women's rights, to trans' rights, to the rights of the LGBTQ community as a whole. What response do you hope to see in film, or how does this affect your own art?
I have so many projects I've wanted to make for so long that are not gay, necessarily, and I keep wanting to find the time to write them, and produce them, and make them, and instead, I do feel a call to help tell some of the stories from our past that shed light on the path forward. Because we've been in this position before — this is not the first time the pendulum has swung backward for people — and there are many mistakes that have been made in the past that led to us losing ground.
I hope we don't do that again. So, it means I now am pitching or hearing pitches for queer projects that help shed light on how we keep moving forward, how do we push that pendulum back in the direction of progress and safety for our people. Three or four years ago, I might've said, "Not right now. I've got some other stories I'd like to tell." But I do feel a call. There are many stories. Harvey Milk's story is just one of countless stories of LGBTQ foremothers and forefathers showing the courage to put their lives at risk in a very dangerous time, to secure rights and protections. And we can learn from their mistakes and from where they succeeded, and hopefully we can do that in incredibly moving fashion so people actually tune in or show up to the box office. I think that that's important.
In a 2014 interview with the Academy, you said your goal in writing is to move the needle and change the culture. Is that still your main motivation and the driving force behind which projects you choose?
You know, these things are hard. [Laughs] Making a movie is hard. Making a television show is challenging. Getting a green-light for a drama feels next to impossible these days. If one is going to fight that fight to get something made, you have to be incredibly passionate about the project. So, if the project is just going to make you money or further your own career, it's just not worth it to me. I'd rather be playing with my son. What motivates me to get out of bed and face the terror that is writing is the idea that we can shatter something that's been needing to be broken for a really long time. I think we have to break things in order for them to come back together in better form.
And there are a lot of things that need to be broken right now. The patriarchy in the United States, and the straight, white male patriarchy, for the most part, is coming back together in a form that seems punishing to minorities of all different kinds. And that needs to be shattered, that needs to be broken. So, yeah, I'd like to move the needle. But I said that in 2014. I've gotten slightly more aggressive. I want to create good chaos that breaks things that need to be broken so that they can reform again in better fashion, because we know better now than we did back then. We shouldn't be turning the clock back to old rules that are outdated, we need to be pushing forward. I want to break the past open where it needs to be broken.
One of your upcoming movies is Rustin, which you wrote, George C. Wolfe is directing and the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions is producing. What do you hope that breaks? What good chaos do you hope that movie causes?
I think Bayard Rustin's story is an inspiring one to me because it shows the interconnectedness between the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the Queer Liberation Movement in the United States. Bayard was very active in one, and later in life, would become more active in the other. But he was always queer, and he was always open about that. We're talking about in the '40s, '50s, '60s, when that was revolutionary just to be accepting of himself and to be in gay relationships that he was not secretive about in the company of the greatest names in the Civil Rights Movement. Including Martin Luther King, who absolutely knew that Bayard was a gay man — and originally did push him away for that — and came to accept him for that. I find it an incredibly moving story, and important right now, because [we need to] build those coalitions between groups that might be very different but both believe we ought to be able to be ourselves with all of our differences, and have that not just celebrated but protected.
I think it's important for us to remember right now that we have to step up for our brothers and sisters and other civil rights movements if we want to keep our own rights. And that is indeed a call-to-action to queer people to step up for our mothers and our sisters as they are having their rights stripped away by a misogynist Supreme Court. I worked on that for about 10 years. I first worked on it with two different writers, and then, at a certain point, George asked that I write my own version. So, I dug in, did all the research in the way I do it — which is firsthand sources, and thankfully so many were still around — and I wrote my own version of a screenplay. But then I had to go do Under the Banner of Heaven. Films like Milk that I produced, I'm there every step of the way. And certainly in TV, the same thing has held true. So, in a way, Rustin has been a more traditional role for a screenwriter and one that I'm very uncomfortable with, but that project has meant so much to me for so long.
"I want to create good chaos that breaks things that need to be broken so that they can reform again in better fashion, because we know better now than we did back then."
You're also taking on a different role, for you, with Mama's Boy, which is a documentary adaption of your memoir. What was it like to be on the other side of the camera for that?
It was a great experience, because I was very picky about the filmmaker. Once it was clear it was Laurent Bouzereau who was going to be directing, he invested a lot of time in research and asking the right questions, and I just came to have a great deal of faith in him. On that one, I also said I don't want any producer credit or anything like that. I don't want to put my thumb on the scale. So, there had to be a lot of trust, frankly. It was shot last year and produced by Playtone and Amblin, which is not bad company to entrust a story that personal to. I've seen it and it was incredibly moving to me, but maybe that's not surprising. It's about me and my mom. I've spent a fair amount of time over the years on the receiving end of the camera because of my political work, so I was prepared in that way. But nothing can prepare you for moving through your entire life story in about two weeks, and that's what we did. It was my mother's story more than mine, but from Lake Providence, Louisiana, to Texarkana, Texas, San Antonio, Texas, Central California, Los Angeles, and London, we scoured my mother's story and how it created a good troublemaker like me.
Are you able to say anything about the other projects you have in the works?
I have this thing about announcements. Until it's done or until the ship is in the water and it seems like it's going to float, I don't announce things. But there's a musical that I'm working on with a wonderful team. Every now and then, I watch old musicals and old productions just to be inspired. So, I'm working on that. I have a documentary I'm finishing on the queer roots of rock and roll in the '60s and '70s. I'm staring at a dry erase board that's right off camera here for a new television series. And there's a movie I've been dying to write for my whole life that I'm going to try to finally find time to write. I suppose it's sociological, but with a big heart. And it's a bit science fiction, which is something I have always loved and not done enough of.
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