Honoring Harvey :: Dustin Lance Black remembers ’Milk’
As we approach Harvey Milk Day in California on May 22, I can’t help but think about the wonderful film "Milk" which won Dustin Lance Black a most-deserved Oscar. And to take it a step further, I can’t help but think about Black himself, and the significance that his film and his subsequent activism has had on the gay rights movement across this country.
With a special screening of the film at the Castro Theatre on Tuesday with Black making an appearance (along with activist Cleve Jones), it gave me the privilege of visiting (Dustin) Lance for an extended conversation about his hope and promise for equality for gays in the future, his dedication to put his words into action through his activism and film projects, and to discuss where an Oscar winner on his first-time out as a screenwriter goes from here.
One place is the back to the movies - this time in a different capacity: as writer/director. Black recently finished "Virginia," and the film is set for a nationwide release shortly.
Below is an excerpt from a longer interview that will appear in our digital magazine in June.
A little baby
BeBe: Thinking back, it’s been like 3.5 years since we interviewed last.
Dustin Lance Black: I know! It was when I was a little baby.
BeBe: You were a baby, and you had that other little baby, ’Milk,’ just popping out there. If I’m not mistaken it was right after the first weekend of the ’Milk’ release that we last spoke. We were talking about the box office numbers and everything. You were right on with your information. It was so amazing!
Dustin Lance Black: Yeah, I paid attention to everything back then. I read everything. It was like sending a baby off to school for the first time.
BeBe: So much has happened with you since then. I remember back then, even early on with the ’Milk’ film, there was the buzz in the air about the significance the film would have (being released two weeks before the vote on Proposition 8 in California), as well as, the significance it would have for many of those involved with the project.
All which proved to be true particularly with you (winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and Sean Penn (winning the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor). I remember throwing a few questions to you back then about the possibility of winning an Academy Award, and I think then it was too much for you to think about with it being so early in the game. So, I’m going to start this interview by throwing those questions back at you now that over three years have past.
Dustin Lance Black: Oh what, that I told you so? (both laugh)
BeBe: Well, yes, because actually I did!
Dustin Lance Black: I’m game! You were right. Hey, I like it when you’re right!
A fairytale experience
BeBe: Listen, it is big for a young screenwriter to come out of the shoot and throw a major film like ’Milk’ out there and walk away with an Oscar. And, we all know there are many people out there with great bodies of work that never get one of those. And you’ve gotten one your first time out. So, how does it feel to have that Oscar in your trophy case? I’ve spoken to other Oscar winners and they have sometimes said it is a burden as much as it is an accolade. So what are your thoughts on that?
Dustin Lance Black: Well, ah, I’m ruined from here on out with every film (tongue in cheek). Nothing will ever live up to the experience of ’Milk’. It was a fairytale! And, it had an ending that none of us involved in the film saw coming. I remember you asked me about it 3.5 years ago, you asked me " ....is an Oscar a possibility?"
I thought you were crazy! But, the ’Milk’ experience was a fairytale experience from beginning to end. I essentially was making this film with three other Oscar winners, my producers Bruce (Cohen) and Dan (Jinks) (1999 Best Picture Oscar winners for ’American Beauty’), and Sean Penn (2003 Best Actor Oscar winner for ’Mystic River’), and I think at given moments along the journey they said to me ’this isn’t the normal experience. Appreciate every moment of it. Soak it in.’
And, I did. But, you know, I guess the only burden is that you want to keep doing work that means something to you. That’s the only reason that film worked in that it meant so much to all of us involved, and we all put our blood, sweat, and tears into it. Everyone agreed to a massive pay cut to do it, if we got paid at all in the end. It challenges you to keep doing things that mean something to you, and to do projects that mean that much to you. That’s the only burden. It (the Oscar) sat at my mom’s house in Virginia for a few years because there is an expectation that comes along with it, and I didn’t want it to guide every decision that I made. But now I have it. He’s home!
’8’ the play
BeBe: You and I spend our lives, and work lives, in these socially liberal metropolises, and it is hard to fathom that there are other gay people out there in small town America that don’t even enjoy the same "equal rights" that we do. They are not on par with the local victories that we have achieved...
Dustin Lance Black: Right. If you live in New York or California, you have protection for employment and housing (as a gay person). You have in some States equal rights of marriage. But in most of the States in this country, you can still lose your job and your home for being gay. So, you better not come out and be who you are or you might lose your job.
That’s in most of the States in this country. That’s why I’ve been working my tail off these past three years to fulfill that promise (I made) by helping found AFER, and file the case against Prop 8, raising money for that. And certainly until we have full equality, I’m on the Board of the Trevor Project as well so I make sure there is a safety net to catch the kids that don’t have that feeling of pride felt yet.
BeBe: Now, you recently produced the stage play ’8’ which is a re-enactment of the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger trial leading to the overturning of Prop 8, eventhough due to appeals, we still do not reap the benefits of that victory. So, we know how the trial ended, however, you still felt the need to produce this play using the actual transcripts from the trial and interviews of individuals involved knowing the outcome. Why was it important to produce this play?
Dustin Lance Black: Well, here’s what happened. The trial was the first time we have been able to call our opponent into court and have them raise their right hand and testify under oath all the hateful, bigoted lies that they have been telling for generations. They had to come to court and do it, and guess what happened? They wouldn’t show up! They know it is lies.
And the one person who did show up, ended up turning on the stand and saying being gay parents make better parents because of the scrutiny they go through to be able to adopt children or have children, and that the day we have gay marriage in this country we will be more American. That was their (the opponent) person. They turned on the stand because they don’t want to perjure themselves in court. They can’t lie up there. There is a penalty for it unlike when we have a Ballot Proposition; they can say whatever they want. It was so miraculous to see light shine in on this debate, and the fact other side was smart enough to make sure it was not televised to make sure cameras were not allowed. They fought it all he way to the Supreme Court, and won.
So, this victory was hidden, the reasons why we won were hidden from the world. The reason we aren’t enjoying this victory is because it (this case) is on its way up to the Supreme Court. When this case, or a case like this, goes to the Supreme Court, that case will affect marriage in all 50 States. And I want people to know what those Supreme Court Justices are listening to, what they are judging. The whole country deserves the right to know the evidence that was presented. That has been withheld. So, I wrote the play since there is no access to video using the exact words because I didn’t want the other side to say I somehow manipulated it. I think it’s an incredibly accurate, moving, and funny account of what happened in that courtroom. And it’s time to tell the truth. I hope people continue to watch it now that it (the play) is on YouTube. (www.8Play.com)
For more information about the screening of "Milk" at the Castro Theatre on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 with Dustin Lance Black and Cleve Jones in attendance, Click here.
To read more of this interview, download the June EDGE Digital Magazine when it becomes available next week.
Watch Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech in 2009 for the film "Milk":