There’s a world in which it’s easily fathomable that Dustin Lance Black could be the most furious person in the country today. Given All That’s Going On In America™, beneath an administration that’s begun to infringe on the rights of LGBTQ citizens, it’s imaginable that Black, the 42-year-old screenwriter whose IMDb page could double as the curriculum for a 101 college course on gay history, could be the maddest of them all. Much of his professional adult life, including his Oscar win for penning the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic Milk, has been spent advocating for precisely the kind of human equality that’s presently under federal fire. And yet, anger isn’t his operating emotion right now, nor has it been since November’s game-changing election. He’s protested and he’s cried, but he’s not angry; he’s disappointed.
“I’ve been hurt,” says Black. “There have been certain people who have made me angry, but I don’t think that’s most of the world. I’m looking for solutions here. There’s a quote — ‘Anger begets anger. Love begets love.’ — and so you’ve got to reach out and try something if we’re going to change things.”
Black’s latest project is an attempt, and one which arrived at a time when a fight for civil rights has once again bubbled to the surface of American discourse. No network executive could predict the relevance of When We Rise, Black’s eight-part limited series on ABC (which concluded its run Friday night). The drama charts the under-shared stories of key figures in the modern gay and lesbian rights movement — Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, and Ken Jones, among others — across four decades in San Francisco. Though the series reaches the relative present by its conclusion, it’s a time capsule of a harrowing journey of victories and losses in a race with no marked finish line.
On narrative alone, that would be compelling enough, but When We Rise’s brief but buzzy run was burdened by a heavy atmosphere of prescience and urgency. Timeliness mutated it from a history lesson to an important show with a capital I — which is great, if you’re a network executive. Not so much if you’re the activist.
“I would give anything in the world for the series to be less necessary and relevant because I’m not a sociopath,” admits the screenwriter, who currently lives in London with his fiancé, British diver Tom Daley. “I know what it feels like this year. Your ‘leaders’ saying that your lives are less worthy of protection. I know that when you’re in isolation in areas like the south in a conservative home, you might take those words from your ‘leaders’ and feel shame or feel very alone in your struggle. And for some young people, the solutions that run through their heads are dire. So in many ways, I hope this show can serve as a roadmap, to know that they have forefathers and foremothers who faced backlash like this before and pushed back and won. It’s a roadmap for them to do the same. It’s a torch.”
Black demonstrates certain qualities that don’t come easily — patience and the conviction that great change can always be affected, somehow. His is an attitude that lies somewhere between optimistic and academic, with roots deeply embedded in two key chapters of his story: An adulthood spent studying social justice history, and a childhood spent growing up in a conservative Mormon military home within a southern family from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
To the former, Black says the modern gay rights movement had been moving towards certain displacement even before the 2016 election, due to its growth and the splinters from certain myopic self-interests within the overall LGBT movement. “If you’re a careful student, you saw what was starting to happen culturally a couple of years ago. I can’t say I would have guessed that we would be in this place with Donald Trump in the White House, but I certainly thought we were in trouble if we didn’t start working together better,” he says. “We’ve made great gains, but as a student of Harvey Milk, I’m well aware that the coalition of yes makes us stronger, and only with that coalition can we move forward. If we’re divided, we’ll fall, and I feel that we’ve become so self-interested that we weakened our collective voices.”
That’s the message for LGBT activists; the other message includes the parties across the aisle and the related allegiances that recent political events have called into question. “I love my family to death, but I know that most of them likely voted for Donald Trump, and I’ve heard their frustrations over the years and seen how they’ve not been adequately addressed,” he says. “But if my mom, who was a conservative Christian military southern Louisiana mom, and I could figure out where the bridges between me and my friends on the coast and her and our family — in what most people would call ‘other America’ — were, then I think the rest of our country ought to be able to as well.”
The tool, Black says, is not a battle of who can out-cite policy or statistics, but whose anecdotes hit home. Storytelling is what brought his family around to accepting him in his teens: “Stories are what finally got my mother and extended family to come from a place of fear about me being gay to a place of acceptance. In Texarcana, Texas, about as red as you can get, storytelling is the best tool in the world. You show up to dinner at my family’s house and you start talking politics, policy, the Constitution, or science, you’re going to get ignored. You might get pushed off the table. But you come to the table with stories, with humor and heart and having something to do with family, and that’s how you’re able to change a heart. You change a heart, then you’ve got a shot at changing a mind. You change a mind, you can start to change laws. You change laws, you change a country.”
It sounds like a dream, to be sure, and Black is too well-versed in gay history to be cavalier about the slow realities of LGBT legislation. But he believes in the power of a relatable family tale, which is why he focused When We Rise primarily on activists with families rather than strictly political battles. “I think the emotional family story is common language between our two Americas, and one we have to start using if we’re going to start to understand each other,” he urges. He’ll use the same trick again soon in an upcoming biopic on civil rights leader Bayard Rustin for HBO, as well as a memoir that focuses on his relationship with his late mother.”
And yet, if the idea of one life-changing hour of television unlocking a breakthrough in family dialogue seems a pipe dream to those who don’t have Black’s history, patience, or optimism, there’s another hope Black has hung on When We Rise: Whatever criticism the series may face in its filmmaking or narrative choices, the show nevertheless offered visibility that cannot be undone.
“Our stories have not been brought to the little and big screen in equal proportion to how we exist in the country and in the world, yes, but beyond that, I think for many reasons we’ve lost our history,” he says, paraphrasing a Larry Kramer quote, “We are not a people until we have a history.” “We’ve lost so many of our mentors who would have handed down their stories in the great oral tradition — we lost that generation — because of a plague. But so many of our stories and so many of us have also been lost in shame. Shame has kept so many generations from telling the stories of who we are and what our struggles have been, and I do think it’s well past time to rip that shame off and continue to begin to tell all of our stories. And there are many.”