‘When We Rise’ Creator Dustin Lance Black on Bringing the Gay Rights Movement to Mainstream TV
Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black on his landmark LGBT rights miniseries, why he doesn’t care if you think it’s a history lesson, and, yes, tabloid rumors about fiancé Tom Daley.
Leaning against the loading door outside Manhattan’s London hotel, the Oscar winner smiles mischievously.
“I don’t smoke. I’m like Jackie,” he says, a reference to Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy biopic, which begins with the former first lady warning a journalist that her vice will not be permitted in print.
Given that it’s actually Black who points out the paparazzi lurking just a few feet away—it’s unclear if they’re there for him, though Black’s relationship with his fiancé, British Olympic diver Tom Daley, has recently achieved the great gay-straight equalization: tabloid rumors—I don’t feel so bad revealing that secret thing that Black only sort-of sheepishly attempts to hide.
Over the course of the next hour, it’s the last secret he’ll keep.
The 42-year-old screenwriter, director, producer, and LGBTQ activist is best known for winning the Oscar for penning the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic Milk starring Sean Penn.
He’s spent the last four years researching and then creating When We Rise, ABC’s landmark four-night miniseries that tracks the last four-and-a-half decades of the gay rights movement—the first time that history has been told with such breadth on a mainstream, accessibly broadcast network.
While desperately seeking a chicken Caesar salad near the end of a press day that started at 5 a.m.—“If I don’t have some protein I’m going to pass out on you.”—Black lives up to his self-proclamation as an open book.
We talk the politics of releasing the series now, the burden of creating LGBTQ content that will satisfy his community—“we can eat our own”—the rumors swirling around his relationship with Daley, and the criticism he expects to face that the series is too educational.
“The show will get criticism for being dense, for being a history lesson. I’ll take it,” he says. “But let it be known that this can be a history lesson and a civics lesson, but dammit, it’s about time we say it plain and clear that this is how you move forward. And if I have to say it too plain and clear to get through to my community and to an ABC audience, then so be it.”
Most of all, occasionally welling up with tears or wondering if he’s said something that will get him in trouble, he wants it to be known that he worked really hard on this project, and sacrificed a lot to work on it. And for what he set out to do, he thinks it’s really good.
And you know what? Maybe some self-congratulation is in order for the man who took on the first-ever popularized telling of the gay rights movement, and is steeling himself to take on all the backlash that such a Herculean undertaking will endure.
All Dustin Lance Black remembers from his Oscar speech nine years ago was a blaring, red countdown clock flashing zero. “I just remember thinking that the producer that year was a gay producer—actually, he also produced When We Rise—so I thought, ‘He’s not going to cut me off…’”
The part that he doesn’t remember, however, inspired everyone who was watching. And, it turns out, it set the direction for the next decade of his life.
After thanking his mother and Harvey Milk for giving him “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,” he made an appeal to all the gay and lesbian kids who were watching: “Very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.”
In a haze he stumbled off stage to his next memory: Jennifer Aniston handing him a bottle of water. “It must have looked like I was going to pass out.”
Then Whoopi Goldberg walked up to him, wrapped him up in a huge hug and said, “Honey, when’s the Valencia Street movie?” Black takes a contemplative breath. “I guess you can draw a line from there to here.”
From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, the Valencia Street corridor in San Francisco featured one of the most visible and concentrated lesbian communities in the U.S.
The neighborhood includes The Women’s Building, the first woman-owned and operated community center in the country. Among its founders was women’s rights activist Roma Guy, who, played by Mary-Louise Parker, would become one of the central characters of When We Rise.
In homage to what he calls Harvey Milk’s “coalition of us-es”—the minorities, women, senior citizens, and union members who allied with the gay community to crusade for change—Black says he started to design the series around the idea of interconnectedness.
The three characters he landed on to tell the sweeping story of the fight for gay rights, from raids in 1972 through the AIDS epidemic up to the federal legalization of same-sex marriage, all had to have been activists invested in another social justice movement, Black says, in order to “show us the importance of working together if we’re going to protect the gains we’ve made and keep pushing forward.”
There’s Guy, who had her roots in the women’s movement and worked in healthcare reform and for immigrant communities. Michael Kenneth Williams plays Ken Jones, an African-American community organizer who helped desegregate the military.
And Guy Pearce plays the most famous of the figures, Cleve Jones, who worked for Harvey Milk when he was assassinated, conceived the idea of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and was a leading voice in the marriage equality movement, but who has also worked feverishly with labor unions.
In fact, Jones, who has become a close friend of Black’s, stayed in Black’s guest bedroom while he wrote When We Rise—the activist sitting at the dining room table writing his own memoir while the screenwriter worked on miniseries episodes in his office.
The fact that we’re watching that rise now is not lost on Black. When he began writing the series four years ago, Barack Obama was president and the LGBTQ community was reveling in its same-sex marriage victory.
Since Donald Trump was elected into office, he has appointed a cabinet made up almost exclusively of anti-gay politicians. You can still be fired or kicked out of your home in many states in this country because of your identity or orientation. The day Black and I speak, the Department of Education and the Justice Department issue a joint letter rescinding the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance on transgender students.
“In a way you can say my worst fears have become realized, which is we became kind of blinded by our successes,” Black says. “We did become divided and were conquered in this election.”
But the series shows that movements have setbacks and backlashes, and that history, especially when it comes to gay rights, does not follow a straight line.
“It’s a swinging pendulum,” he says. “And in order to get it moving forward again, we have to heed the lesson of history and lock arms with our brothers and sisters in other minority communities and underrepresented communities and communities that are being treated unequally and fight for each other’s rights as hard as we fought for our own.”
The series went from being a warning to a rallying cry, and a map of how you move forward.
“There are young LGBT people who are feeling incredibly isolated right now,” Black says. “They’re hearing this divisive language coming from the very top of our federal government, which is encouraging bullying, which is telling people it’s OK to treat people who are different differently under the law. There are far too many young people who might consider dire solutions to that. I think we’re in a very dangerous time. So I wish this was not as relevant.”
Relevance is one thing. But just because something is relevant doesn’t mean that people are going to pay attention.
Black insists that When We Rise wasn’t created solely for a friendly audience—though, as we end up discussing, perhaps even that audience isn’t as friendly as you might think. Audiences including those who voted for Donald Trump, he thinks, will be interested in and relate to the stories of these activists and their romances, their families, and their emotional journeys.
While that may or may not be true, the fact that this story is being told on ABC is a watershed moment for gay-centric popular culture.
In Monday night’s first episode alone, a character has an emotional coming out scene. There are riots, rallies, and raids. There are sex scenes, the steamy kinds that they show on ABC shows like Scandal. There are drag queens, the word “faggot,” and a group of bar patrons singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” while their brothers and sisters are beaten and thrown in a police van.
Episode two features a frank discussion about bottoms and tops.
Black says ABC never fought him in terms of sexual content. The place he did have to push is language.
“You’re not supposed to say ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ on TV,” he says. He thought it would be inauthentic if he didn’t. The show will carry a language warning before it airs: “I got one ‘faggot’ per hour from ABC.”
“Authentic,” however, is a lightning rod of a word when it comes to LGBTQ content. “Inclusivity” is another.
Stories about the LGBTQ community don’t often get the Hollywood treatment. It’s even rarer to get a mainstream platform like the one ABC is giving this one. And on the isolated occasions that it happens, these stories are picked apart—often deservedly so—for sanitizing, alienating, or, in the case of Roland Emmerich’s disastrous Stonewall film, whitewashing history.
“I’ll just tell you what I think the solution to that is,” Black says, “which is not to be an arrogant white guy.”
The writers room and slate of directors for When We Rise include men and women, people of color, gay and straight people. The four biggest trans characters in the series are all played by trans actors.
“They’re teaching me and correcting me when I get something wrong,” he says. “So if you just check your ego and you bring in people who will help make it more representative in an authentic way, then you can avoid some of the criticism. But there will be criticism. And when I hear that criticism I applaud it, because it means someone was paying attention.”
Learning to deal with criticism, of course, has been a journey for Black, who rapidly rose from anonymous screenwriter, having worked on HBO’s Big Love before winning his Oscar, to visible activist and, thanks to his relationship with Daley, unabashedly public celebrity couple.
Lately, that means having to face a storm of press stemming from tabloid reports that Daley had an affair with a male model. The sheer number of times Black mentions Daley during our conversation answers the question of whether they are still together before I even bring it up.
Still, he’s learned that when you’re going to pose for the cover of OUT magazine and tell the detailed story of your engagement to one of the world’s most famous athletes, gossip and rumors are going to be a byproduct.
“If we haven’t commented on it, it’s not true. I’ll say that,” Black says about the recent spate of rumors. “If we do something we’re not proud of, we’ll cop to it.” He points out that Daley flew from London to San Francisco just to be with Black for the When We Rise premiere.
“We’re not perfect,” he says. “We’ve got the same problems any other gay couple and any other straight couple have. But it’s 90 percent great. And that’s better than most, I think. That’s me and Tom. I will get giddy about him, if you keep asking me. We’ve been together four years, and last night I couldn’t sleep because I was missing him so much.”
He catches my look. “Oh yeah, we’re disgusting together.”
Still, the fact that we’re talking about this at all is, in a way, a bit of watershed moment.
Black might wish that such questions weren’t circling what should be a huge professional moment for him, but he also knows that the people his new series is about would marvel that there’s that much interest in the relationship of an out gay screenwriter as he is on a giant press push for a show about our LGBT history that is supposed to be mainstream.
“I really wish all of my gay mothers and fathers we lost for so many different reasons were here to see this moment,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of the mentors I had in the ‘80s in San Francisco would ever imagine they would have a miniseries like this, being promoted in a way this is being promoted from ABC.”
It’s actually him who brings up the critical response he expects it to get, that some might call it too sweeping, or too educational, or too family-friendly. (Me? I cried. Often.)
Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Or maybe, as he realized over the course of his four-year journey the weight of being the guy who is responsible for the first sweeping cinematic telling of LGBT history, he actually means it.
“Listen, if some kid 20 years from now has to watch this as an assignment and is super bored and doesn’t understand why, holy crap we did it right,” he says. “We’ve succeed. Then we’ve won.”