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Scheer Intelligence

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black on Risking Career for LGBT Rights

Dustin Lance Black, left, and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer. (Christopher Ho / KCRW)

Dustin Lance Black won an Academy Award in 2009 for the screenplay for “Milk,” a film about activist and politician Harvey Milk, and he has since gone on to fight for LGBT equality offscreen. He sits down with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer to discuss his risky but, he says, necessary decision to pause his career in pursuit of LGBT equality.

“I made a promise on that Academy Awards stage that young LGBT people would have equality from sea to sea,” he tells Scheer. “I thought, you know what, I’ve got to drop the film thing if I’m going to do the activist thing right.”

Black, who also wrote the screenplay for 2011’s “J. Edgar,” a biographical drama about J. Edgar Hoover, combined his passion for LGBT rights with his love of filmmaking by producing the 2017 miniseries “When We Rise.”

“In this country, we’re each our own little quilts, aren’t we? We’re made up of all these different little pieces,” he says of the show, which focuses on real-life struggles and triumphs within the LGBT movement. “[‘When We Rise’] is an eight-hour miniseries that takes you from before ‘Milk’ and well after, all the way up until after Proposition 8 is dead.”

Listen to the full interview in the player above or read the complete transcript below, and check out past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

–Posted by Emma Niles

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer, and this is an edition of Scheer Intelligence, the grassroots alternative to the Central Intelligence Agency, where hopefully the intelligence comes from my guests. Today it is, I’m sure it will come, from screenwriter, director, and social activist Dustin Lance Black, who I know; he’s spoken, you’ve spoken in my class, you’re a great guy. And I was particularly taken with his movie on Harvey Milk called Milk, which won an Oscar for the best screenplay. 

Dustin Lance Black: Yeah.

RS: And I loved that picture of you in your tuxedo, and it was actually very moving. And I don’t know if you mentioned specifically that you had a Mormon background, you’d grown up in Texas. But there was a tribute–

DLB: I did, that night, yeah.

RS: Yeah, to your parents, and I’ve shown that in my class. And you know, and it’s interesting, this show that I do here, the podcast, is basically an examination of American originals. And I say, out of the crazy-quilt of American culture and all the different, you know, indigenous people and slavery and ethnic groups and immigration and crazy religions and cults and everything else, we do produce an amazing cast of interesting witnesses to all this, and rebels, and so forth. And you’re certainly in that category. How did you come upon the Milk project, and what were the difficulties in making it?

DLB: First of all, I love that you call it a quilt. And it does start there. You know, in this country we are such, we’re each our own little quilts, aren’t we? We’re all, we’re made up of all these different pieces. And my pieces were growing up in the U.S. military, growing up devout Mormon, then a little stint in a Southern Baptist church. And a child of the South; my family is from Louisiana, from Arkansas, from Texas, which is where I spent most of my childhood. And I have a mom who is very different than most people, because she was paralyzed from polio. So she didn’t have the use of her legs, and she looked awfully different when she walked around, and that’s a part of my quilt. And so you take a kid who also–at like the age of six years old, I remember very, very clearly watching this kid who was like ten, he was my brother’s friend, walk away from me. And he’d just stolen, in really poor fashion, this car, this toy car. And–from me. I loved it, it was like a little Mustang; he’d spray-painted it black to try and conceal it, but he’d done a bad job; it was my car. I don’t know if I can swear on this, but I almost did. And I remember thinking that I wasn’t feeling anger, I was feeling hurt. ‘Cause I had a crush on him. And he’d just broken my heart. And I also knew in that same moment, because I’m made up of that patchwork, I’d already heard words from the military folks saying, calling people like me fag, you know. I’d heard from the church, I’d heard Spencer W. Campbell beamed into our church in San Antonio, Texas, saying “the sin of homosexuality is akin to murder.” I’d heard that it would bring great shame to my family, you know, from my Southern roots. Bring great shame to myself.

RS: And you were in a military situation ‘cause of your father?

DLB: So I had–my mom was civil service working at Fort Sam Houston. So that was Army. That, they actually gave her a job when my father vanished, at six years old, and taught her how to become a microbiologist and an immunologist; they were, the military was very supportive of our family. And then I had a stepdad who was in the Air Force, Randolph Air Force Base. And after him, a stepdad who was in the Army. And he’s the one who took us out to Fort Ord in California. So I like to say my mom did the tour of duty [laughs] with some different fathers before she landed on a husband from the Army, which worked out great. I had this combination of, like, knowing I was really different, knowing that the thing that made me different was not good; it wasn’t going to be good news. I also had this thing built into me of wanting to protect people who were different, ‘cause I saw how people looked at my mom. And I love my mom; my mom and I were really close. But people looked at her like she was a freak. The way she walked like a pendulum, you know, with the scars she had from the surgeries as a child. Really beautiful face, but a very twisted spine from the scoliosis. And I wanted to protect her from a very early age. So I had that combination, that’s my quilt! You know, and there’s a lot in between that moment and the moment I first heard the story of this guy named Harvey Milk, who put together a patchwork of his own. But these were a voting bloc of his own, that was also a patchwork of people who were being treated differently under the law for their differences. Seniors who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. The Chinese community, who weren’t being treated fairly on election day in terms of having equal access to vote in a way that made their vote clear.

RS: Being gay was illegal and a medical illness, a sin, and all these things, even in the late sixties. And Harvey Milk, who had been a stockbroker in New York and successful and so forth, ends up in what was once called Gay Gulch, or the Castro District after. And he has a little photography store, right. And he now is engaging this community.

DLB: He is, and it’s a young community. Can I say, I’m going to say a word–

RS: You’re the Oscar winner, you can do anything you want from here on in. [Laughs]

DLB: Vietnam, baby. Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam organized young people. It taught young people how to organize, how to resist, how to fight back. Those kids in the Village, around Stonewall that night, they had been trained without knowing it. They knew how to resist, they knew how to march, they knew how to evade cops, they knew how to get attention, because they’d been a part of a movement for peace.

RS: Yeah.

DLB: And all of a sudden the cops are coming after them, and without even knowing it, they start using their tools from the peace movement to fight the cops as LGBT people. That’s what the cops and the papers and the power didn’t anticipate. It’s why they called it the Gay Liberation Front; that’s borrowed from the peace movement.

RS: Yeah, just as a little footnote here–and just ‘cause I’m the older guy, so that’s my value–the most famous Beat poet in the fifties, Allen Ginsberg, you know, in his most famous poem, said “America, I am putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” And Allen Ginsberg was out of the closet, openly gay, as quite a few of the Beatniks were. And he got very involved in the peace movement, got very involved with civil rights. But somehow it didn’t click in to a gay movement, a successful gay movement. And the value of the movie that you wrote, Milk, is it reminds us of how recent the victories that have been registered in this area of acceptance of gay life; hopefully they’re permanent victories, and they’ll expand. But the fact is, people should know the Milk era, and he was the first elected official, nationally, who was openly gay, I think.

DLB: Yeah, the first openly gay man.

RS: Man.

DLB: Yeah.

RS: Yes. Well, let’s tell, let’s go to Milk, because that–

DLB: Yeah, yeah, sure.

RS: –is a major, major achievement that if people haven’t seen, they should see it, and they should everyone that they know see it.

DLB: Well, I hope they see that, and I hope when they want to see, understand the larger context they go and they watch When We Rise, which was on ABC last year, which is a eight-hour miniseries that takes you from before Milk and well after, all the way up until after Proposition 8 is dead. But you know, with Milk, I as a kid, to take it all the way back, was really drawn to this man who was able to get a bunch of people who probably didn’t feel they were being treated fairly, and probably didn’t think they ever would be–he brought them together. Whether that’s racial minorities, seniors, the, you know, pro-pot community in the Haight. And said, hey, I’m your candidate. And guess what, he won with that coalition. And all of a sudden I’m hearing a story as this, like, Texas kid who’s already feeling pretty freaky, who, I want to fight but I don’t know how to fight. And I hear about a guy who had a strategy to put together a coalition. A coalition of the us’s. A coalition of minorities, a coalition of people who feel like we ought to all be treated equally under the law, not just despite our differences, but even to celebrate those differences. That was a revelation to a Texas boy from the Mormon church. I shed tears when I first started hearing the story of Harvey Milk. I was looking for anything I could to read, and there was a great book about him, called The Mayor of Castro Street, or a documentary that came out in the early eighties about him, which is also fantastic and won the Oscar. And I read those things, and I watched those things, and I was still hungry and I was still curious, well, how do we get that story out there? ‘Cause we need it out there, in popularized fashion. And then I’m at UCLA film school as time is going on, realizing, gosh, where’s the whole gay history? I mean, you can find it if you go to a bookstore in a certain neighborhood in a certain city. But if I’m just a kid at home and I’m looking for a movie, can I go to the video rental store and grab it? Most likely not, you know. And this is pre-Netflix and Amazon, and just being able to stream what it is you’d like. And I thought, we gotta–you, I quote Larry Kramer, who was a big part of Act Up and fought back to save lives around HIV/AIDS. And he said, “We are not a people until we have a history.” And I said, I believe that’s true, and I want to add to that: I don’t think we can really coalesce as a people until we have an accessible, popularized history. A history that it’s, it’s–that young people can find and know.

RS: So now we’re in the early seventies, and Harvey Milk is in San Francisco. And how old were you then?

DLB: Well, I was, I’m born in ‘74, so I was not, I was just born right when he was starting to sell Kodak film.

RS: OK, all right. So, and people should understand, ‘cause I covered the AIDS crisis for the LA Times in the early eighties. And San Francisco was not this great, enlightened place.

DLB: No!

RS: They had a hard time getting funding even for research. The Reagan administration came in, and didn’t–you know, “let ‘em die” was really the attitude. It was “the other.” When I would go back to the LA Times and I’d talk about AIDS Project LA, or I’d go up to San Francisco and interview Tom Waddell, who died of AIDS and so forth, you would think I was in some distant, I was in Laos or someplace, talking to some “other.” And I’d say, no! These are people you probably know. There are some people in our building who are in the closet, and you know, and so forth. And yet, so people should be reminded, even–and we’re going to discuss Harvey Milk’s victories in San Francisco in the seventies–they didn’t translate into a really enlightened view over the AIDS crisis. Quite the opposite, but progress had been quite limited. But then let’s talk about his pioneering role now in the movie.

DLB: To me, one of the most important lessons, and I hope it’s–ah, it’s one we needed in 2008, when Proposition 8 hit; it’s one we need again right now. And that is, embrace your differences. Investigate them. Figure out all the ways you’re special and unique and different. And I think a lot of people are doing that; they’re figuring out, how am I different racially, ethnically. My experience where I come from, the god I pray to, gender, and all the variations of that. But when you’re–that’s not the end. The end of that work isn’t saying, well, I’m incredibly different and I’m discriminated in all these ways and I’m going to go over here in the corner with my group of people and be really angry about it and let you know about it. And I say there’s value in that work, but that’s not the end. This is not the discrimination Olympics. You do not get a prize for being the most discriminated against. What I think Harvey Milk was saying then, and what we needed to hear in 2008, and what we need to hear again now, is that on the other side of that great work, your job is to build a bridge. Your job is to reach out to other people of difference and build those coalitions. Those coalitions are where power is. If you simply stay in your corner of discrimination and are very angry about privilege and other people’s privilege, which you might have a right to feel that anger–but if you stop there, we’re going to continue to elect Trumps. Harvey’s message was, bring the us’s together. Figure out how you’re different, figure out what it is you deserve, and you need. If you have anger, vent it, but then build a bridge; reach out and build a bridge. It’s that coalition of the us’s that got Harvey Milk elected. It’s that coalition of the us’s that helped us move so fast towards LGBT equality in many areas, including marriage equality. And it’s the dissolution of that coalition, and those coalitions, that gave us Trump. We have to figure out, me as a gay man, I have to understand and build a bridge to my family in the South who are white, working-class folks. I have to understand what it is that is hurting them. How they’re also minorities in some way, how they’re also different in some way, and we have to build the bridges, share the stories, find the connections and understand those connections. Harvey was brilliant at that! Let’s not forget that one of the ways he was elected was to reach out to those union truck drivers who were, you know, getting Coors beer out there. Actually they weren’t union truck drivers yet, ‘cause Coors would not unionize. And he said to them, you can’t pay for your talented kid to go to college, ‘cause Coors won’t pay you a living wage. Well, guess what. Most people would never think that a bunch of gays in the Castro would have anything in common with a bunch of working-class truckers going up and down the 5 freeway with Coors beer. But he found the commonality. He found where the hurt was. And he said, well, one thing us gays can do is we can stop drinking that Coors beer. And that’s what he did, he organized the gays to stop drinking Coors beer, and it fell from No. 1 for the very first time, and Coors caved. And they started paying those union truck drivers a living wage. And that’s how that alliance began, that union truck drivers were voting for the gays in California. On things like Proposition 6 back in the day, and why unions showed up again and voted for us, you know, when we were fighting for marriage equality.

RS: Why don’t you tell us, just before we move on to the next subject, even though you won the Oscar for this, and–tell people how accidental it was to make that movie, and how difficult.

DLB: [Laughs]

RS: Because people forget that. I had Oliver Stone in my class the other day, and he made great antiwar movies and so forth. But they almost didn’t get made, and no one else wanted to make them, and the obstacles are incredible, you know; Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. You’ve been in this industry, the movie industry. And tell us about, you know–

DLB: Listen, if there’s no capes or fangs, nobody really wants to make that movie. If it’s not, if it’s not a blockbuster that’s based on a sort of, on a piece of material like a comic book that’s going to almost guarantee a profit, it’s low on the priority list. So you got to keep pushing and pressing. You know, almost any drama is impossible to make these days. This was, I had a TV show I was writing on called Big Love on HBO. So I had a job, I was lucky, a good job at a good place. And that afforded me to write in my evenings and on the weekends. And I tried first to get the job over at Warner Brothers, writing their version of a Milk movie, ‘cause they owned a great book called The Mayor of Castro Street. And they wouldn’t hire me. They said they wanted a writer with an Academy Award to write their version. And they’d been working on that; Oliver Stone had been attached to it at one point. They’d been working on it since the late eighties, and now we’re in the, you know, mid-2000’s. And I was heartbroken, ‘cause I’d already put in a lot of effort, a lot of research; this was something I’d been passionate about since my teenage years. And I called Cleve Jones, who was Harvey Milk’s, like, apprentice. A kid off the street, political aide at one point, who helped get him elected. And he said, well, why, you know, why are you stopping? Should we still do it anyway? And I said, yeah, let’s do it anyway. And that’s what I did. I just started to write on my own, research on my own. I financed the thing on a credit card. I would get done at my job on Big Love, which was shot in Santa Clarita, around 6pm on a Friday; I’d drive up and pick Cleve Jones up; then I would go to San Francisco, he would introduce me to one or two people, we’d interview them over the weekend, staying at Beck’s Motor Lodge, which is right there in the Castro. And I’d come back to work on Big Love on Monday. And I did that for, you know, well over a year, couple of years, until I had a script I loved. And still nobody wanted to make it. Took it to Cleve Jones’s roommate from the late eighties, whose name was Gus Van Sant. And Gus had gone up to San Francisco and was writing a book and stayed with Cleve for a while. And he said yes, and still nobody wanted to make it. Gus and I watched YouTube videos of different actors giving political speeches until we found Sean Penn’s, and we said, oh, wow, they’ve got a similar style to them. And we went up and got Sean Penn. And Sean Penn showed us some stuff on Emile Hirsch, and Gus reached out to James Franco. And all of a sudden we had a package that Focus Features–I think thanks to their success with Brokeback Mountain–said yes. Now, that’s–we’re talking years at that point. I mean, my credit card didn’t look healthy. I had some paying off to do. So we were really just focused on trying to get it made; I don’t think any of us ever thought it would actually get made. Then when we were shooting, I think we were beside ourselves that it was going well, ‘cause so often you finally get the green light and then you hit some stumbling blocks you don’t expect, and we weren’t hitting those. And it felt like a blessed experience. You know, it timed out. It’s, part of a movie is when it comes out, how does it meet the world? What’s going on in the world when the movie comes out? And it was one of those rare moments where it merged into the world right when the United States was facing a similar anti-gay backlash around Proposition 8. Which literally mirrored what the film centered on, which was an anti-gay backlash around Proposition 6. So in that way, we also found luck, and that lifted the movie up.

RS: [omission for station break] After making Milk, another project of yours was really quite improbable in a way. And you made it with someone I wouldn’t think of as as great progressive director, and we’re talking about the movie about J. Edgar, J. Edgar Hoover, and that was made by Clint Eastwood. So could you just take us to that project?

DLB: It was an idea that was brought to me by the folks over at Imagine, who I now do so much with. And knowing what little I did about J. Edgar at first, I went and did a bunch of research. And the more I looked, the more I thought, gosh, this is literally the mirror of Milk. If Milk is about the hope that is found on the other side of coming out, this is about how closeting crushes a soul and darkens it, and the terror that that creates. So the closet creates terror. And I thought, well, if I can do this as a cautionary tale and I can lay out my firm belief that J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual, which I believe he was gay, then I’m in. And everybody kept saying, sure, do it. And I wrote the script, and then I ran off to New York to go shoot a project and edit a project there, and I got the phone call that Clint Eastwood was interested in directing it. And I said, OK, well, you know, at that point, I’m the writer; you sort of get removed from the process. And I said, well, does everyone think that’s a good idea? And people thought it was a good idea. And so I finally got a chance to speak with him, and I just wanted to say, like, are you cool with the gay thing? And he thought it was, to him, given the era, it was treated honestly. So I said, well, that’s–as long as you’re not going to straighten him out, I’m fine with it.

RS: And he was thought of as a conservative figure, right? Or is that just his role in–?

DLB: Clint Eastwood.

RS: Yeah.

DLB: Yeah, but I think he’s very–he is conservative; I mean, come on, he spoke to an empty chair at the RNC. [Laughs] We know that. I think that he’s very libertarian when it comes to his views on things like LGBT equality. I mean, I put that to the test: right around the same time, maybe a year after we were shooting it, as we were heading to the U.S. Supreme Court with our marriage equality case–’cause I had dropped filmmaking for years after this to do marriage equality. And I asked him if he would sign on to an amicus brief, and he said yes, without hesitation. So in that way he, you know, he put his pen where his mouth was, and signed on. And I think he used an expletive when the press asked him why he had done it; he said something like, “Let people marry whoever the ‘f’ they want.”

RS: It’s interesting, ‘cause I had my own encounters with Hoover; I, you know, when I was an anti-war person and the editor of Ramparts and so forth. And I used to try to figure out, you know, why is this man having me followed, and why does he not like people that have my own view. And it was difficult, ‘cause he was such a mysterious figure, and he was surrounded–you did a whole movie on it, but I remember I once ran into a guy named Deke DeLoach, who was then working at Pepsi of all places, but he had been like No. 3, and he was part of the three, along with J. Edgar and I guess it was Sullivan, who went to destroy Martin Luther King, planted the fake stuff and all that. And I never, until I watched your movie, I never thought of being in the closet being the key ingredient here.

DLB: Well, I think when you know what it is to have a secret that you hold shame around, you know, you weaponize that. And I think that’s what he did; he weaponized other people’s secrets, because he knew he had his own. I think if he hadn’t have had his own, he might not have instinctively gone there, or known to have gone there, or understood the power of it. So you can start to, it’s quick, looking at it from the perspective of a closet case, which I was for a great period of my life–I’m just now getting to the place where it’s not the majority of my life–I know what that is; I know the shame there, I know the power and the danger of that secret. And Hoover knew that as well. And you watch him and all of these horrific things he does, you watch how he utilizes that knowledge. Certainly with Martin Luther King and that horrific letter that he wrote him on the eve of receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.

RS: Well, it was a fake letter, supposedly coming from an irate person out there, but was written by the FBI. And it suggested that King commit suicide ‘cause his game was up and he was going to be exposed. And I mean, it was just an incredible savaging of a great American hero, and you don’t ever hear about it much. And you know, people now, they don’t remember Hoover’s power. Hoover scared the bejesus out of presidents. I mean, Nixon in the tapes even talks about Hoover’s power; Johnson, Kennedy, they all feared this guy.

DLB: Well, he knew all their secrets. I mean, that’s what he did, is created huge files and systems that categorized people’s secrets.

RS: And what was his secret? ‘Cause the movie gets into it a bit.

DLB: His secret is that he was a gay guy, a gay man, and he was having a love affair with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson. I mean, they lived together. I’ve been in the home where they lived together. Straight guys don’t do that. They’re not inclined to do that. And it’s what they did, and you–you know, is there hard proof? Well, there’s no audio tape, but there are a whole heck of a lot of pictures. And I can read body language, I can see the way they interacted, I can, it’s–and certainly you can then look into all the folks that they were photographed together with in places like Miami [laughs], when they would go down there; men who eventually would be openly gay. And you start to figure it out. It’s very plain, it’s very obvious. And you know, it’s not an inspiring film; it’s a cautionary tale. And so I never thought it would catch fire the way Milk did. I think it made a lot more money than Milk did when it came out, but it is certainly a cautionary tale: do not, do not put shame on people’s differences. ‘Cause if you do, you’re going to create more little J. Edgar Hoovers, and that’s not what we need.

RS: So you were, are, this super successful Hollywood person. When people go to UCLA or USC film school, this is what they want to be. And you win an Oscar, you get assignments with really top people in the field, your films get made. You go on, we haven’t talked about your other great work on television, and we can talk about it a little bit. But you make a conscious decision, and I think I knew you around this time when you were making this decision, ‘cause you would, I thought, very generously speak in my class. That was great. And you, you know, I described you as an Academy Award filmmaker, but an activist. And you made a conscious decision of civic participation, to put it mildly; you really worked very hard on expanding gay rights in America.

DLB: [Exhales] Yeah. It’s a decision–I mean, I think will be one of my proudest, when that day comes and I have to look back on what I might have done in my life, and what I might have–

RS: Are you going to meet a Mormon god? No? [Laughs]

DLB: No–ah [laughs], that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. That means I would have to populate a planet with a woman with heavenly spirits, and I’m just not up for it. [Laughter] The, ah, but–

RS: I don’t know, for eternal life, god–

DLB: Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know. If I forget to bring my husband, maybe. I did, I got, I already had the deal for J. Edgar when I won the Academy Award. And there were some other deals that I was flirting with, and things I would pitch. But I made a promise on that Academy Award stage that young LGBT people would have equality from sea to sea, at the federal level. That’s a big promise!

RS: Yeah, let’s talk about that moment. ‘Cause that really, for me, is one of the most significant things that happened with that film. I can tell you, I show it in my class, I remember when it happened, I watched it, I didn’t know you then, but I did show it–it was incredible. You got up there, and first of all you look as American as apple pie; you don’t fit any stereotype of anyone. And I don’t remember your exact words, but it really was compelling. And are you worried at that moment you’ll be given the hook, or how much time you have? I mean–

DLB: Yeah. I, um–

RS: Put us there, and tell us what you said, because that really was great theater, in the most meaningful sense of it.

DLB: Well, we had just, in between Milk being released and the Academy Awards, Proposition 8 passed in California. Which took marriage equality away from gay and lesbian people. And there were many debates going on about what it is we should do; should we go back to the ballot, should we wait, should there be court cases. And I had a really different view, and it was just having been a student of civil rights, period, and civil rights movements. ‘Cause Milk is not the only person I’ve, and certainly LGBT rights is not the only movement that I’m interested in. And if you really study these movements, you need to go to the federal level; at a certain point you have to show the courage and the self-respect to say, no, no, no, no matter where I live as a person of diversity, I deserve rights. I don’t just deserve rights when I cross the border into California. And I had this firm opinion that that’s what we needed to do. And so I said to myself, if I get lucky enough to get on that stage, I’m going to make a promise for full federal equality, and try my best to change the conversation from the state-by-state strategy, which I thought sounded like begging for crumbs and showed no self-respect. And it’s really just me as a Southerner, me as a kid from, you know, a far-right community; I was using conservative values when I got up on that stage. ‘Cause as a conservative kid, you show any weakness, you ask for, oh, can I have part of my lunch back, bully? And you’re not going to get any of it! You go up to that bully and say, give me my lunch, ‘cause I deserve my lunch, and if you don’t give me my lunch back, my lunch money, whatever it is, there’s going to be trouble. So I got up on that stage and I said, full federal equality. ‘Cause I knew my good Southern friends would respect that more than saying, a little bit of equality in California, please. I caught hell on the other side of that, but not from any conservatives. I caught hell from people in the LGBT movement.

RS: Really!

DLB: Yes! Yeah, some people who were, like, my heroes.

RS: For that incredibly inspiring speech?

DLB: Yeah. They said I was naive, I didn’t understand the movement–

RS: But you told the world at the Academy Awards that–

DLB: It didn’t matter. They had their way, they had their plan. And I just said we should do something a little more bold.

RS: Just to end this, pick it up after. You did do a TV series on history of the gay issue. But also you became much more of a political activist. So you’re still living in those two worlds now?

DLB: Yeah, I am. I mean, I gave–I didn’t know it was going to be this long, take so long; it was actually Rob Reiner, who was a part of it all, who pulled me aside at one point and said, you know, you can’t do both. You can’t do both well. And so you got to sort of decide, which is it gonna be? And I remember, that stuck–I wonder if he even remembers saying that to me.

RS: This is being an actor and–

DLB: Being an activist and doing film. And coming from a filmmaker activist, I really listened to him when he said that to me. I think we were at the circuit court with marriage equality, and we were looking at still more years ahead, and I was still trying to do film. And that stuck with me, and I thought, you know, I got to drop the film thing if I’m going to do the activist thing right. And I’m going to drop the film thing until we win marriage equality. And that’s what I did. And I probably gave up a lot of money. ‘Cause not a lot of people win the Oscar and say, you know what? No more deals! And I’m not going to keep putting my attention into those projects. But that’s, I made a promise on that stage, my mom taught me to be a man of my word, another conservative value, and so I did my best to work my tail off for those years until we won at the supreme court. And it was only then, you know, in the past few years that I’ve gotten back into it, easing back into it. And one of the things I took on was a, you know, a more comprehensive look, as much as I could on a station like ABC, at the LGBT rights movement, from a little before Milk until quite recently. And so that was my first foray back into film after taking a good amount of time off, ‘cause I don’t know if you can do both. And I’m back, but I do think that the stories we tell in Hollywood have the power, have the potential, to be more powerful than some of the direct political work that we do. If you tell a compelling story that can change a nation’s heart, that can illuminate who a people are, help us understand diversity instead of judge it, show us to value of having neighbors who are different instead of the value of a wall between neighbors, you can move hearts. And if you can move hearts, then you can move public sentiment. You move public sentiment, you can start to change laws. I always say, the way to change laws isn’t by changing minds; that’s a mistake. You go after someone’s mind, they’re going to fight back with whatever they can find. If you go after someone’s heart, genuinely, if you tell a personal story and you can change that heart–and films can do that–then you can change the mind.

RS: There are so few people that do what you did, that are willing to say, oh, you know, I’m going to do what I have to do here that’s important, and I’m going to use my credit card, I’m going to do everything else, but I’m going to get this movie made. And so, you know, OK, I’m not going to ask you for the secret formula of how you do it; you seem to have survived quite nicely, you got the will. But is there something you would pass on to a young filmmaker, of advice to how to be successful but effective?

DLB: I think–I mean, I’ve said this many a time, and I’m going to say it again at the Writers Guild Awards this coming weekend. ‘Cause I, you know, they’re giving me an award, so I get some time on stage.

RS: And this is the award for–?

DLB: It’s the Valentine Davies Award, which is, you know, really, I think it’s about, they give it to someone who’s brought some sort of honor to the Guild in some way, they say. And you know, I’m not sure I feel I deserve it or I’m ready for it, but I’m going to take that time on stage. And I’m going to say, listen, one thing is, the thing that makes you really, really different is what makes you valuable as a writer. So you better start to look into that and examine it. It’s where your unique voice lives. We started by talking about a quilt; examine that quilt. This is what I tell my students when I teach classes. Examine it, how are you different, what’s your different perspective. And then drill down into it, get really specific about that difference. ‘Cause in the specificity of us describing our differences and our different experiences, we find a universality. That’s where the universalities come from, not from big, bold, broad statements that sound nice, but from the specificity of our experiences as people of difference. And I’m going to tell people, mine into that. It makes you marketable. It gives you your unique voice. If people are saying, yeah, but you know, capes and fangs make money–say, well, unless you’re obsessed with that, unless literally that’s a part of the fabric of who you are, that’s a part of your quilt, someone’s going to kick your ass if you try to compete with them on that. Let the people who that’s part of their quilt do the capes and fangs; you do you, and do it with great specificity. And No. 2, we’re in a time that’s challenging for people of difference. And let’s be honest about that; thanks to the internet, we know every single person on the planet is a person of difference, every single person on the planet is a minority in one way or another, depending on how you slice that pie. We are all a person of difference. I think it’s great that Hollywood is resisting and rising up and fighting back. But resistance is not enough. We have to have a vision. And as writers and filmmakers, we have to offer that vision. We have to say, OK, if we’re going to have an equal planet where everyone has a fair shot, is there going to be enough oxygen for us all at the end of the day? ‘Cause that’s the things my white, working-class family back in the South is worried about. They won’t say it, but it’s what they’re worried about–there won’t be enough for them if we give everyone a fair shake. So it is time for people in Hollywood to start to talk about, what is the vision, what does it look like, what does that fair world look like? It’s a lack of imagination that says there’s not going to be enough oxygen. There will be. There can be. But it is time for Hollywood not just to resist, but to offer our imagination and our vision to paint the picture of what an equal world will look like, so that we can get there. I’m sitting here next to my cell phone thanks to a guy named Gene Roddenberry who said that one might exist one day. So I’m going to tell the Writer’s Guild to get their butts to work, dreaming bigger and painting those visions for a better future for our kids and our grandkids.

RS: Yeah. And the thing to tell people back in Texas, that the fact is, gay people and black people and brown people and immigrants and Jews and Mormons are not an “other;” they’re in your family. And your great strength, as I look at it, is you’re a product of that mid-America. You’re a product of that America that frightens a lot of other people now, but they don’t have to produce, you know, someone who likes Donald Trump; they could produce someone who produces and helps produce a gay revolution and a victory for civil rights. OK, I want to end on that note. Thank you. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. My guest has been Dustin Lance Black, who is brilliant and talented and courageous. The producers of Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

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