Dustin Lance Black on the power of collective protesting and changing mainstream hearts with When We Rise
With an emotionally resonant acceptance speech, Dustin Lance Black accepted the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2009 for Milk, a powerful tribute to gay political hero Harvey Milk. Could an Emmy be next?
It’s possible, even if the 42-year-old Sacramento native is too modest to admit that his latest screen ambition, When We Rise, the accomplished filmmaker’s tremendous seven-part undertaking chronicling the progressive uprising of the ’60s and ’70s, is certainly golden statue-worthy. Partly inspired by LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones’ memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, the miniseries sheds light on our foremothers and fathers who raised hell — working to combat misogyny, homophobia, and racism — to create a changed world for future generations of, as the show declares, “others.”
“With this show, I measure success by whether I get a phone call from one of my Southern family members who have never talked about being gay,” Black says. “When that happens, and that conversation is started, it will have succeeded.” And should that conversation stretch beyond Black’s own parochial loved ones, its influence could be life-changing for those in the queer population who now find themselves trying to resist the oppression of Trump’s America.
For that reason, When We Rise is shockingly relevant, especially considering its half-century-old history isn’t just history — it’s our current reality.
During this intimate conversation with Black, the filmmaker gets candid about the beginning of his activism at age 7, the importance of “we” in any resistance movement, and how sharing a story is the first step in changing a mind.
Tell me how this miniseries ended up on a commercial network like ABC.
Dustin Lance Black: This project started for me four years ago, when I heard a rumor that ABC was looking at optioning LGBT history properties, and I called my agent and was like, “Is that true?” Just four years before, I had to charge the development cost of Milk on my credit card because no one wanted to pay for it — no one was interested! So, I had made my agent book a meeting with the powers that be at ABC, to look them in the eye and see if it was true — and it was. The funny thing is, they said, “We can’t afford you, but who do you think would be good to write and create something like this?” and I just laughed (laughs). Like, come on!
So, I thought, “Boy, this is an incredible opportunity to tell our LGBT story, or a part of our LGBT story, and not be preaching directly to the choir.” I had other networks that had been interested for a long time in something of this nature, and I thought, “They’re gonna spend more money, they’re gonna give me all the time in the world, it’ll be a great experience, and we’ll get it absolutely right… and we’re gonna turn around and preach directly to the choir and we might not change a single mind.” Here, I had a chance to tell our stories on the network that I watched as a kid, because as a kid, I grew up in the South, I grew up in the military, I grew up in a conservative home, in a Christian home, and we trusted ABC because ABC told family stories. I thought, “Well, here’s a chance to finally be able to tell the story of my LGBT family to my actual family,” and that’s what I set out to do. That’s why I think it’s remarkable that it’s on ABC. We’ve come to a place where we can perhaps talk the same language of family between these two Americas, and perhaps change hearts and minds in a time when that seems absolutely, critically necessary.
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Did you go to the recent Women’s March? And having shot a similar march for When We Rise, did it feel like history repeating itself?
DLB: I’m living in London, and we certainly walked through Trafalgar Square, which was jammed with thousands of people. I have to say; I’ve heard the rallying cry at many marches that says, “Gay, straight, black, white, same struggle, same fight.” But usually it’s either mostly black and a little white, or mostly gay and maybe a few straight, even though we chant that chant. This is the first time it truly seemed gay, straight, black, white. It was diverse. And that was, frankly, heartening.
The reason I designed this show the way I designed it was because four years ago, I was concerned that social justice movements were becoming incredibly myopic and self-interested, forgetting that we need to work together if we’re gonna get anywhere. Not understanding the intersections of our movements, losing sight of where those intersections are, and certainly forgetting the great power that we can gain by working together. So, I was worried. We were becoming divided, and it’s why I insisted when designing the show that I find real people who came from other movements, not just the LGBT movement — people who came from the women’s movement, the black civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the series eventually touches on immigration and healthcare.
The most important word in the struggle for equality is “we.” It’s why I told ABC right from the beginning when we designed the title: “We” has to be the biggest word in it. It’s a word we’ve forgotten, and it’s the answer to beating back a backlash. The key is that we have to struggle together. So, I was heartened, frankly, by the diversity I saw, not just in the march that I was physically present for here in London, but the ones I paid careful attention to on TV and online. It gives me a little bit of hope.
When We Rise touches on this glancingly, but I want to remind gay men that the Gay Liberation Front (of 1969) started as a group of men who were feminists because feminism says loud and clear that “gender ought not determine destiny,” and that means one thing to women, but it certainly means that gay men ought to be able to love who they love regardless of gender. So, gay men need to examine why we haven’t been more vocally feminist.
How was the idea for When We Rise first conceived?
DLB: I toyed with the idea for a long time. After Milk was over, I started to think about other stories that need to be told, and I’m doing other LGBT-themed history projects, but I always wondered, “Was there something bigger, and how would I go about doing that?” As I met people — activists — along the way, I would sort of catalog their names in my head in case I ever got the chance to do something like this, and it was ABC saying they would actually pay for a year of research to really figure out who to depict that set it in motion.
So, it was always something I wanted to do, and I thought ABC was the right home for it. So then, at great personal expense, I set out on a journey. Let me just say nobody made any money off this thing. If anything, my poor agent and business manager were sweating it as we got it to year four.
You have Rachel Griffiths, Mary-Louise Parker and Guy Pearce, and then a terrific cast playing them in their youth. How did the casting process work for this? Did you have any of these actors in mind while researching the real-life person they’re playing?
DLB: I never think about who will play the parts while I’m writing if it’s based on a true story because I’m working so hard to get the real people right. Certainly, by the time I was writing the finale, I started brainstorming, and I had one dream for (lesbian women’s rights activist) Roma Guy and that was Mary-Louise Parker, and I had one dream for Cleve Jones and that was Guy Pearce.
Then, I got this very emotional, beautiful phone call from Michael K. Williams (who plays Ken Jones, African-American community organizer) while I was at the airport scouting locations in San Francisco. He told me how personally meaningful the scripts were to him, and he talked about the people he lost — his friends and fellow artists in New York — when he was growing up, and I could just tell it was coming from a very personal place, so you can’t beat that personal connection.
The young cast — we went out searching, and we just wanted to cast the very best people. (Transgender civil rights leader) Cecilia Chung was a really interesting one to me. I had said to my casting director that I only wanted to cast trans actors and actresses in the show to play the trans roles, and they brought up Ivory (Aquino) to play Cecilia Chung. I got a little upset with him and said, “You know, I told you it’s important we make an effort and cast trans actors and actresses for these roles,” and he said, “We think you need to get on the phone with Ivory,” and Ivory came out to me as trans on the phone call. She’s now come out to the world.
Why was it important for you to include actual trans actors in the trans roles?
DLB: First and foremost, when I’m casting any role, I’m gonna look for somebody who can bring a part of their experience to the role. They still have to be a great actor, so if I can’t find anyone in the world who shares some experience that they’re about to portray in this character, who’s also a good actor, then I’ll happily go for someone else. And the big surprise is, it was not hard to find amazing trans actors and actresses to play these parts. What was difficult was deciding who to cast because so many great tapes came in. So, I call bullshit on Hollywood if they say it’s difficult. And if they think it’s difficult, then they should call our casting directors because they found unbelievable trans actors and actresses, and it was actually tough to decide who to cast.
I think people have the impression it is difficult based on what they’ve heard from directors and casting agents, so this is refreshing to hear.
DLB: It’s not true. I’ll tell you what was difficult: Years ago, it was difficult to find openly gay actors to play openly gay roles — that was difficult. When we were doing Milk, that’s what we said we wanted to do, and the studio gave us full permission to do that. So, we called agents and manager friends and they all said they didn’t have any gay actors or actresses, which is funny since I knew some of their clients were gay! (Laughs)
It was very frustrating, but thankfully that’s begun to change as well, particularly in this young generation of actors and actresses who, in one way or another, have come out on social media when they were kids and there’s no putting them back in the closet in today’s social-media age.
An interesting tidbit to share is, they also worked incredibly hard with the real people when that was possible. For both the young cast and the old cast, on my own dime, I flew up the real people to wherever we were shooting so they could be there to work with the costume department, the set design department and the actors, just to make sure we were as close to truthful as possible.
Do you remember the first time you stood up for something you believed in?
DLB: (Ponders) My mom was paralyzed from polio since she was 7 years old. She had the use of her arms, but that was about it. So, I grew up with a severely disabled mom, and I didn’t quite know that or realize that until I was probably 7 years old, somewhere in the early years of elementary school when we started having to be out in public with strangers. The way they looked at her and the way they treated her, it ate at me.
I was an incredibly shy kid. I rarely said a word in school. But there was this student named Anthony who was severely mentally disabled, and he would get bullied constantly. I remember the time I finally stood up for him. I was very afraid, because I was a tiny little thing (laughs). And I remember trembling, but the bullies backed down. I told that story to my mom, and my mom looked me in the eyes and said, “You have a strong sense of justice — where does that come from?” And the answer is pretty obvious: I was hiding a pretty big difference of my own, and I knew at that point that I had crushes on my guy friends and not the girls in school. Certainly, having watched my mom being treated so differently because of her differences, those sorts of moments of witness instilled a sense of justice in me.
And now you are one of our most recognized activists.
DLB: Well, your job’s incredibly important right now. I can’t overstate how much we depend on journalists right now to stand up for the truth, so good on you.
We both tell stories about LGBT people, and I imagine, like me, you hope that non-queers see your work and come away with a sense of just… humanity.
That’s the key, isn’t it? Listen, this show is for ABC. As a kid who grew up watching ABC in the South in a Christian, military home I knew I could show up at the dinner table with all the laws and facts and science I wanted, and I wouldn’t change a single mind. You want to change a mind in that other America? You gotta lead from the heart, and you do that by telling stories, not by arguing facts or the Constitution.
So, that’s what I came armed with for When We Rise. I went out and did my best to find true stories — in particular, stories of families, because the family story transcends these two Americas. There’s not a lot we think we have in common right now, but both Americas have family stories, and we can both be moved by each other’s family stories. That’s why I mine family stories: the families we lost when so many of us were outed or came out, the makeshift families we had to build to survive, and eventually the families we were able to build and raise.
So, by that design, you tell an emotional story, you can change a heart; if you can change a heart, you can change a mind; you change a mind, you can change the law. But it goes in that order, and so this is the first step of that. Let’s try and change some hearts.