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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 24, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 08
'When We Rise' -

An interview with Dustin Lance Black
Arts & Entertainment
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'When We Rise' -

An interview with Dustin Lance Black

Oscar-winning screenwriter and Gay activist Dustin Lance Black talks about his new LGBT docudrama miniseries, the Oscars and Tom Daley

by MK Scott - SGN Contributing Writer

On Monday, February 27, 'When We Rise,' a four-night, eight-hour miniseries written and directed by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, 8, J Edgar) premieres on ABC. 'When We Rise' chronicles the real-life personal and political struggles, set-backs and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. civil rights movement, from its turbulent infancy in the 20th century to the once unfathomable successes of today. 'When We Rise' will be broadcast on ABC Monday, February 27, 9pm-11pm, and then continues at the same time each evening Wednesday, March 1, Thursday, March 2, concluding Friday, March 3.

Any chance to chat with Academy Award winner and Gay activist, Dustin Lance Black, is always a joy. Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Milk (the docudrama about Gay activist and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk) at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009. My last conversation with Black was just before his inspiring speech at the 2013 Portland HRC Dinner. Now, Black, 42, is entering an incredible year both personally and professionally with the premiere of his new miniseries 'When We Rise' this Monday, February 27 and in his relationship with UK Olympic medal-winning diver Tom Daley. I spoke to Lance by phone last Friday, February 17, about bringing this milestone series to broadcast TV.



MK Scott: Lance, I wanna talk Oscars and politics later; but first I need to ask about your new four-part series, 'When We Rise' on ABC. How was the idea for 'When We Rise' first conceived?

Dustin Lance Black: This started about four years ago when I heard a rumor that ABC was optioning LGBT history properties like books and documentaries and that was a shock to me. Just a few years before that I had to charge the development fees for Milk on my credit card. No one had any interest in LGBT film on TV - or very little interest. And so to think that ABC, which is the network my Southern conservative military mom trusted me to watch alone as a kid, was interested in LGBT history - I just had to take a meeting. And so I went in and I looked the executives in the eye and I asked them why this was personal to them. Because it's only if it's personal to them that I think they would, you know, actually take the bold risk of producing and airing a show like this. And it w - and I believed them when they told me their answers. And they, in fact, financed a year of research where I went around the country and interviewed dozens upon dozens of real life LGBT folks to figure out, well, whose stories will I tell in this. And the journey started there. It was really about a year of landing on a handful of characters - real people who were unique in their eyes and were not very famous folks.

We get glimpses of the famous LGBT activists, but these are the people who fought their entire lives for equality, and not just LGBT equality, but they fought for women, for racial minorities, and the peace movement and understood the interconnectedness of social justice movements. And that's the idea that motivated me. That this needed to be 'When We Rise,' not just when LGBT people rise. To understand that we have to march forward with our arms locked with our brothers and sisters in other social justice movements if we're going to make progress. And in a moment like this - a moment of backlash - if we're going to push the pendulum forward again. And so, with that idea - these characters - I started cracking stories and writing, knowing that if this were on ABC, I had to - I had to tell stories that were emotional, that were - and that were about family. 'Cause that's the common language between our two Americas right now. LGBT people have great family stories, tragic family stories that - the families we've lost when we were outed or came out, the makeshift families we had to build to survive. And now, these days, the families we're able to build and the children we're able to raise. And, guess what? Those family stories of ours are absolutely relatable in that other America. And I know that, because I grew up in that other America. And so I tried to use that common language that would inspire and move both of us - all of us. And, you know, that got me into production, that got me the greenlight - that philosophy.

MK: Besides Cleve Jones [played by Guy Pearce], what other activists do you document?

DLB: The first one I knew I needed to portray was Roma Guy, and that's because everywhere I went around the country, I kept hearing her name. How she came from the women's movement when the National Organization for Women started kicking Lesbians out. She rose up and fought against that with many others to make sure that Lesbians were included in the Women's Movement. And then she opened the very first building run by women for women and she opened that in San Francisco. And then, when a plague hit, she opened the doors of that all women building to start to take care of her dying Gay brothers. And her movement and her activism continues all the way to today where she works to make sure that immigrants are treated fairly and that there's healthcare for all, and working to protect even prisoners in San Francisco. So her activism continues.

I then, because I was using Cleve to introduce me to people in San Francisco, 'cause I knew him - it was through this journey that I realized how special his story is. The fact that he was an activist his entire life, is incredibly unique - most activists kind of check out after three to six years - it's difficult work, it's not like it pays, really. And it's exhausting. You're surviving attacks from the outside but also from your own and Cleve has survived those. My mom has always called him the Gay Forrest Gump as he was at every critical moment - he was at every critical moment of the Gay movement - always trying his very best to do the right thing. So, it was only through the research of others that I realized how special my dear friend was - and, you know, I should take him from having been a supporting background character in Milk to being one of the leads here.

And then, once I met those two, and started asking who their group there, the group is they worked with back in the day - then I met Ken Jones. And boy, what a moving story his is - a young man from the Black Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey, who served three tours in Vietnam, was cast with desegregating the military and then he was outed and forced from the military. And his story journeys all the way through the HIV/AIDS crisis. It hits on issues of marriage equality and race relationship recognition and the horrors that happened to LGBT people because we didn't have those rights, and ends up in a story that I think is on the cutting edge of LGBT equality that it may be legal to keep LGBT people out your church - but it is absolutely immoral - and Ken's story becomes one about the relationship between Gay and God, and so I included him.

And I'd always, in the back of my mind, hoped this would land in San Francisco, which it eventually did, because I wanted to portray the story of Cecilia Chung, who I knew. I had heard her speak, and Cecilia Chung is, of course, a celebrated Trans Chinese-American activist in San Francisco, who started on the streets and now helps run that city. So, I would say, that's the core; but you have characters beyond that, so though, because these are family stories, we get to know these main characters' families.

You know, we get to know Dionne Jones, and we watch her relationship with Roma develop throughout the series. I won't give it all way, but Dionne Jones was well known in her own right as a nurse at San Francisco General - who when an unknown disease began taking Gay men's lives and many wouldn't go into the rooms to treat them, to care for them, she did. And with many others she helped create the San Francisco standard of care. So that Gay men weren't dying in hallways of the hospital the way they were in New Yo;k City. So there's many more unique [individuals] throughout as supporting characters, but I would say that's the core.

MK: You have Rachel Griffiths, Mary-Louise Parker and Guy Pearce, and more. Did you have input on casting?

DLB: Well, yes, I mean, I'm the creator of the show. So I have, some would say, ultimate input in the casting and hiring and, you know, with ABC. But ABC was just thrilled every step of the way. The cast for this came together in similar ways to Milk or 8 or J Edgar. If you have a script that addresses issues that are going on today, well, that's unique - that doesn't always happen in Hollywood. And, listen, don't get me wrong - I love a good action film or a horror film - I'm often watching those or a romantic comedy. I often watch those when I'm writing my civil rights films because it takes my mind off of them. But it's a different kind of film and this is a different kind of series. And when you do something that is this topical, you get yesses from actors who you might not otherwise. And so we had that experience here. I mean, Mary Louise Parker was my dream to play Roma Guy and when she said 'yes' my heart leapt and it started from there and it continued on.

MK: It's amazing how much Guy resembles Cleve.

DLB: That's a huge compliment to Cleve [laughs] 'cause I think Guy Pierce is incredibly handsome. You know, these actors all - both the younger cast - 'cause there is a young cast who plays these same characters and then halfway through it switches to the more mature cast - and so Austin McKenzie who plays young Cleve then becomes Guy Pierce, Emily Skaggs who plays young Roma then becomes Mary Louise Parker, Jonathan Majors plays young Ken Jones becomes Michael K. Williams. And on and on and on. Each, all of these actors were able to spend time with the real life folks they're playing, if they were still around. And many are still around. So if there's a resemblance in performance - and look, it's because they were able to work with the originals to try and get there.

MK: The four-part series is shown over several nights, like in the old style mini-series, instead of the current trend of a weekly limited series. Do you see that as a positive or negative?

DLB: Oh, it's a huge compliment. It's a huge - it's a huge, huge, huge vote of confidence in this series. I'd be lying if I say I didn't feel the pressure of this magnitude of a compliment and this confidence. They have not done - the last time ABC did this was with 'Roots.' [Ed. note: ABC also presented 'The Thorn Birds' and 'Winds of War' as mini-series.] And it shows that they feel it is incredibly topical, that they have great faith in its quality and in its potential to connect not just with LGBT people, but with all of America. And that was our goal. And so, you know, it's - it is, for a network to take over their entire prime time schedule for a week shows such great courage and boldness that I do hope that LGBT people turn out and watch and - and I hope they call all of their straight brothers and sisters and friends and co-workers and have them do the same 'cause this sort of courage ought to be supported.

MK: In this scary time, when we thought that our troubles were ending, I haven't seen much activism in the LGBT community.

DLB: Well, so all - I, I think we have been - I think that we're doing it in the right way, right now. And that is, that the - what I was so afraid of four years ago - even as we were making great progress, is that we've become incredibly self-centered, myopic, really focused just on our own issues. And we had absolutely lost sight of our connection to other social justice movements. We were not working locked arm in arm. And as a student of Harvey Milk, who built the coalition of yesses, in order to start winning freedom and winning political power, that coalition of yesses wasn't just LGBT people. It was seniors, it was racial minorities, it was union workers. That's what built - well, I couldn't see it. You'd hear at the marches 'Gay, straight, black, white, same struggle, same fight,' but it was mostly Gay people with a few straight people, or mostly African American people with a couple white people. And I kept asking myself, why aren't we showing up for other people's rallies? And, you know, just ask Nero - divide and conquer - and we've become - not out of animus, but out of self-interest - we've become divided. And that was dangerous. And now we're seeing that indeed we've lost ground because we were divided. And what I'm seeing now, when I've gone to these marches, when I've been to some of these rallies, is that it is now truly Gay and straight and black and white, same struggle, same fight - and that's critical. So was it just a Gay rally? No. Should it be? No. We should be showing up for our brothers and sisters in other social justice movements as we wanted them to show up for ours when our rights come under attack.

MK: It was amazing when I went to my very first march, which was the Womxn's March in Seattle, and it was everybody.

DLB: Yeah, great. Were you the only Gay or Lesbian LGBT person at that march? Right. Exactly. There you go. There you go. I believe that is more what we need to be doing - is marching alongside our brothers and sisters in other social justice movements, understanding our interconnectedness and working together. That is the lesson - that's one of the lessons learned in 'When We Rise' - it's why it's called 'When We Rise.' And, that we have to start doing that again.

MK: Do you hope 'When We Rise' will inspire the new fight?

DLB: Yeah, absolutely! Listen, I - by design, these main characters do not come from the LGBT movement. They started in the Women's Movement, Black Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. They go on to work in things like immigration and healthcare reform and access to the freedom of religious belief. So, it's told - it's a very personal story to a select group of people, but I hope it helps people understand that we have to start working together again. And that is a way to beat back what's happening right now. What's happening right now is not unusual. It is what history does. Progress moves forward and back and it is our responsibility to work together to push that pendulum forward again. That's the moment we're in.

MK: On another subject, I was thrilled to see you part of the Oscars nominations video. How did that happen?

DLB: Of course. Yeah. I mean, it is a great honor. I remember the group of people who announced the Academy Awards the year I was nominated and, you know, you think about perhaps one day you'll win, and you'll be in a group to be called to do that for someone else, and you pay it forward. It's a great honor!

MK: Do you have any predictions?

DLB: No. I have yet - I still have a few more films I have to watch before I vote - so I can't - I haven't fully educated myself on all of the films. So I gotta catch up!

MK: How about Moonlight?

DLB: I have seen Moonlight, yes. I thought Moonlight was fantastic and I - I particularly appreciated that an LGBT film that's not just focused on white characters has broken through in the way it has. I think that's significant.

MK: Have you seen La La Land?

DLB: I have not. That, if the rain continues to fall, that will be my evening. But I have to say I'm really looking forward to it. I loved his first film. It's one of my favorites [Whiplash] from the past few years. I can't wait to see La La Land.

MK: You had mentioned in our last chat in 2013 that you were working on a screenplay for the biopic on Northwest outlaw Colton Harris-Moore. What is happening with this project?

DLB: Yeah! It still - that project is still very much alive and it's got a well-known director on it who has to finish up, I believe, one more film before he shoots The Barefoot Bandit - it's about Colton Harris-Moore, who, I have to say, is a free man now and doing quite well and I love speaking with him.

MK: Burning Question: How are things going with [fiancé] Tom [Olympic diver, Daley]?

DLB: It is - I'm not gonna give you all the details - but, you know, we have an exciting year ahead for us! I'll be seeing him - he's flying out - you know, we live in London, and it was - it's - and he is getting on a plane tomorrow to be with me at the premiere in San Francisco. So, just looking forward to seeing him then.

MK: Tying the knot in 2017?

DLB: Well, you know, it's a rumor. I cannot confirm - I cannot confirm nor deny. [laughs]

MK: Besides having Tom around, how do you stay so youthful?

DLB: Oh, you are sweet! Aren't you sweet?! I - okay, all right. Oh, you know what? Listen, anytime you wanna do an interview, I'm yours! Are you kidding me? I, uh - you know, honest to God, I don't know. I got my Mom's genes. [laughs] I'm the luckiest person in the world for having them - both her kind heart and her, like, wrinkle-proof skin. That's the real truth. You know, it's certainly not for lack of stress, I'll tell you that. [laughs] But, thank you, that's very kind.

Be sure to tune in to 'When We Rise' premiering Monday, February 27 and continuing Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, March 1, 2 and 3 on ABC (KOMO 4), 9pm-11pm. Hear this interview on MK's podcast, at podomatic.com/podcasts/itsfab

MK Scott is a Seattle-based blogger. Check it his blog at outviewonline.com

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