Dustin Lance Black has been on the frontlines of LGBT equality since his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Milk” presented him a platform to be one of the most prominent activists of this generation.
Before his appearance at the ACLU dinner on Nov. 2, we got Black, 38, on the phone to talk about the dangers of having Romney in office, his film career – from his critical disappointment “Virginia” to the upcoming “Earthquake” – and how his late brother, who died this year, lives on in the fight for equal rights.
Why is it important to you to take an active role at events not just for the LGBT community but for other minorities?
To me, especially in the case of the ACLU, I still think it’s critically important that gay and lesbian people reach out to other minority groups that still don’t have full equality and to demonstrate that we care about issues outside of ourselves – that we understand the power of the coalition. We don’t do enough about it as a community, so I try my best to advocate vocally for other groups of people who need a helping hand. Certainly the ACLU represents a lot of the folks that I’d like to see given a fair shot in this country.
“8,” a play that portrays the courtroom proceedings that led to the overturn of California’s Prop 8, has been making its rounds in cities across the U.S., including metro Detroit, since it premiered in New York and L.A. earlier this year. What’s it been like seeing your work performed in so many theaters nationally?
“8” has become something that I don’t think any of us involved ever imagined it could be; it’s what we had hoped it would be. It’s now in over 300 theaters across the country – mostly in theaters in states right now that have ballot initiatives regarding marriage equality – and it’s being used for outreach and education.
As the writer of “8,” how does it feel to you personally to see your work reach so many people?
I was in the courtroom almost every single day, and I found it incredibly moving that for the very first time the opposition of equality had to come in, raise their right hand and tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And when put under that scrutiny, their arguments completely fell apart.
None of the folks who go on television and bash gay people and bash gay families were willing to come to courtrooms to say the same things; some of this “science” that the opposition has had for so long, they weren’t willing to present because they know it would fall apart under such scrutiny, under penalty of perjury.
It was also so moving to see the testimony of those who were fighting for equality and how open and honest we could be and how our testimony stood up to any criticism, because we’re literally just telling our truth. It was as moving as it was equally painful to know that the opposition had, in a very strategic move, made sure that there were no cameras in this courtroom – that the world was denied access to this truth-telling moment.
For me, I wanted to find a way to honor what happened in that courtroom and bring it to America. This moment of truth in the gay and lesbian movement is now making its way to every corner of the country, so that every community has the opportunity to know the details of the case that is sitting in front of the U.S. Supreme Court right now. I’ve always said the truth will always find the light – and the truth, when it comes to LGBT equality, is on our side. Our job is to make it find the light quicker so that we don’t lose more young lives and so that we get to enjoy our lives and our families during our lifetime.
You nabbed big Hollywood names to bring the production even greater visibility, which was remarkable and had to feel quite rewarding. Are you now besties with George Clooney and Brad Pitt?
I wouldn’t say we’re besties. (Laughs) They have their lives and I have my life, but it was remarkable how quickly all of the people who were in the L.A. and N.Y. cast signed on to do this. I mean, these are incredibly busy people; they have a lot of things they could be doing. It said to me that these guys understand what’s at stake for gay and lesbian people and how important it is that we have our lives, our love, our relationships and our families recognized and protected in the same way that theirs could and should be.
With the presidential election just around the corner, are you having election jitters?
Absolutely. Yes. I am having some election jitters. And I think for good reason. There’s a lot at stake in this election. I’m not a partisan guy; I’ve supported both Republicans and Democrats in their races for elected office. But in this case, there is no question which president will look out for the lives of gay and lesbian people and which president doesn’t think that we deserve equal respect and protection. They’ve said it loud and clear.
And so I threw my support behind Barack Obama wholeheartedly a couple of months ago, and I’ve been doing all I can – speaking across the country, even writing checks – to make sure that he does win. After he came out for marriage equality publicly, I think we need to make sure we give him our full support to get back into office with the mandate of making that a reality.
What would a Romney presidency mean for the gay community?
A Romney win is not just dangerous for the gay community but for anyone interested in equality. This is a president who seems to have trouble seeing outside of his own experiences. I don’t think this is a man who has demonstrated any kind of empathy or understanding for people who are very, very different. The danger is not that he will get a lot of legislation passed that will hurt gay and lesbian people; the danger is he is likely going to appoint two Supreme Court justices, making this the most conservative court in history. That’s what is at stake. And that doesn’t just go for gay and lesbian people; that’s gay and lesbian people, women, workers – they all are about to see their protections stripped away. He explicitly said he believes these sorts of protections should be allowed to be put up for a vote. I find it absurd and criminal that he would say that minorities should have their rights put up to votes.
Who is in your binder of women?
(Laughs) I don’t have a binder of women, because there are so many women in my life, running my life, protecting me daily – they could not fit in any binder. There’s no binder big enough for the women who make sure I am productive every single day.
What can you tell me about your collaboration with J.J. Abram’s on the upcoming film “Earthquake”?
Well, I can tell you that the ground will shake. I can tell you there will be an earthquake. (Laughs) I can tell you the reasons I wanted to do this: J.J. has actually been a big supporter of my foundation, American Foundation for Equal Rights, and I wanted to meet him to at least thank him. In that meeting he let me know that he’d been wanting to develop an earthquake movie at Universal, which had done one in 1972.
I wasn’t interested in remaking that movie. I wanted to do it because I was in both the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. I said, “Earthquake movies and miniseries I’ve seen completely missed the point. You can learn a lot about society if you pay close attention to what happened in the hours and days after an earthquake.” So I’m looking at that, but that’s probably all I can say without getting into some sort of trouble. But I’m excited because I think it’s a creative collaboration; it’s very exciting, and I’m sure tonally it’ll be different than anything I’ve done.
Your last film, “Virginia,” which was filmed in Michigan, received harsh criticism and never got a proper release.
Yeah, I got beat up.
How did that feel coming off the success of “Milk” and “J. Edgar”?
You know, it happens. I’ve never taken the safe road. Not yet. And so, when you do that you’re not gonna bat a thousand. There are certainly things I’d do differently with “Virginia” if I had a chance to do that, but I also love “Virginia.” I know critics were tough on it, but for the first film I wrote, I learned a lot.
What you might not know is I’ve gotten bad reviews before. (Laughs) Not every one of my episodes of “Big Love” were the critics’ favorites, and I’ve made some TV movies and things that I wish could be different, but if you ask me, “Hey, is “Virginia” a film you’re proud of?” Then I’d say yes. “Is it a film that is personal and truthful to you?” I’d say yes.
That was made post-Oscar. Is there this innate pressure of having every project live up to that award?
Well, that’s sort of the strange thing with “Virginia.” We were in the process of making it before “Milk” and before Oscar; we actually shot it within just a few months after the Oscar. There were years of development and the script was, like, eight years old. I think I was meeting producers and cast while we were shooting “Milk” and then, all of a sudden, everybody was looking at me. Not everybody, but people were looking at me. I always thought I’d make “Virginia” in sort of a vacuum and it would come out and no one would know or care who I was.
But they did.
(Laughs) In retrospect, to do a film that experimental and that personal – and I was taking a lot of risks and exploring a lot of tones and things – it’s probably not one you would make if you’re looking to please the same audiences that loved “Milk.” That’s just true. There’s a totally ethereal, metaphorical world in it, so I think for a lot of people they saw it and were like, “Are you sure this is the same guy who did “Milk”?” (Laughs)
Your gay brother, Marcus Raul Black, lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. In a blog post you wrote after he passed, you called him “my protector.” How do you look back on your relationship with Marcus?
(Sighs) Boy, I still am looking forward with my relationship with my brother. I have started to tell the story of me and my brother; I’m bringing him with me on this equality ride. Like I say in all the speeches these days, the difference between the feeling that I had coming out in California – that feeling of hope and liberation that I felt when I came out – wasn’t one that he could have because he grew up in Texas and Virginia (he was living in Holland, Mich. when he died), where you can still lose your job and your home if people find out that you’re gay. So people are not coming out, especially in his community – because he’s sort of into the hunting community and the NASCAR community. He had every reason to be afraid.
So I bring him with me as an example of why we can’t work on a solely state-by-state basis for equality. We have to be working right now at the federal level so we don’t have a checkerboard country. That’s all I talk about lately: me and my brother and how we had the same kind of love in our hearts but couldn’t express it the same because of geography. When I give my speeches now, I usually have something of my brother’s in my pocket and I just think about how he’s holding me as I get up there in front of all those people.
What of his do you put in your pocket?
I hope it doesn’t sound macabre, but I’ve been holding onto the gloves that I wore as a pallbearer at his funeral. I always hold them and say to myself – and to him – “I held you, and I need you to hold me now,” because I get very nervous in front of thousands of people.
As someone who’s inspired many young people, like your brother and Harvey Milk inspired you, how do you feel about these youth looking up to you now?
We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and so Milk will always be one of my compasses. I do my best every day, to the point of exhaustion. I take it very seriously, and boy, it would be the greatest compliment in the world to hear that some young person is looking up to me in any way at all that mirrors the way that I felt about my Harvey Milks and the people who have inspired me to do what I do.
Annual Dinner 2012
6:30 p.m. Nov. 2
Henry Ford Museum
20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn