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Dustin Lance Black on latest ABC project, When We Rise
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2017-02-22

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Dustin Lance Black not only juggles three names but usually at least three jobs with screenwriting, directing, and producing. Activism is now part of the list and author is soon to be as well.

This Mormon-raised talent started in fictional gay centered short films, then moved into a documentary called On the Bus. He wrote for HBO's Big Love and was promoted to co-producer.

After researching Harvey Milk's life for three years he made the film Milk, for which he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He followed that up by Directing the movie Virginia, and writing the screenplay for J. Edgar.

His latest project is called When We Rise. It is a miniseries for ABC that follows the accomplishments of a variety of LGBT pioneers over time. This groundbreaking story stars Guy Pierce as Cleve Jones, Mary-Louise Parker as Roma Guy, and Rachel Griffiths as Roma's wife, Diane.

Windy City Times: Hi, Dustin. Where are you calling from?

Dustin Lance Black: From gray, soggy London. I have not seen the sun in months!

WCT: Why did you move there from LA?

DLB: To be with my fiancé. His office is not mobile. Mine is just a laptop when I am not in production. It was a pretty easy negotiation. I had to come here!

WCT: How was When We Rise created?

DLB: I heard four years ago that ABC was starting to option LGBT books. I thought that was interesting because four years before that I was paying for rights for Milk on my credit card because no one was interested in LGBT projects.

I wanted to create something that went beyond the gay, white, male experience and was more diverse. I wanted to do it on a network that wouldn't just be preaching to the choir. I put down everything that I was working on to do this.

I spent a year researching the stories to depict. I wanted to do it in a way that not only communicates with LGBT, but other folks, like my family, who are conservative and Southern.

I was concerned that the LGBT-rights movements were becoming separated. That makes us weaker. I looked for real people that had been involved in other social justice movements. What I found was people like Roma Guy, who had to leave the National Organization for Women because they were kicking out lesbians, and Cleve Jones, who I had depicted in Milk. He was a supporting character before, but this time I thought his story was compelling and needed to be told on a bigger stage.

My mother described him as the gay Forrest Gump because he has been there at every critical moment in gay rights, and always trying to do the right thing.

It was important to me to add more characters like Cecilia Chung, who was trans before there was a word for that.

I had different people who were fighting for social justice who fled to San Francisco. They found a city that didn't hold all of the promises that they had hoped, so they fought to create the change they needed.

I wanted to do something that is not done in most civil rights story telling. With these characters, most of them are still alive and working for equality today. I want this to be inspirational to a new generation. I want them to know in the end that most of these folks made it. The people can live a life with love, and joy, but get political when necessary. You can survive and thrive.

After having a told a story that didn't end that way, I decided it was high time to have one that does.

WCT: That was what I thought after watching Milk. Who is our Harvey Milk today?

DLB: That was on my checklist. I needed them to be activists today. That is a small group of people because it is tough work. I needed them to come from other social movements. I wanted them to still be alive. At the end of the day we have men and women, gay and straight, Black and white, cisgender and trans, who have new leaders they can look up to and draw inspiration from. They can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They can go to their rallies or ask them how to make one of their own.

WCT: There is a whole generation of LGBT people who don't know their history.

DLB: There is that, isn't there? I have dedicated my life and put myself in a pigeonhole of LGBT history because I feel it is unwritten in a popularized fashion. It is because networks and book publishers have not rushed to green light LGBT stories in the world in the way that they have other civil rights stories. They are starting to.

We lost so many of our forefathers and their stories thanks to a plague. There was a missing piece in the oral history.

We have a history that goes back hundreds of years, but so much of it has been covered with shame and not recorded in a way that is easily accessible to young people today, who need to draw on it for inspiration and to feel less alone in the world.

I think history is power. It shows us what to do in the face of a backlash so damn it we need it right now. This show shows us how we failed or succeeded in the face of backlash. The backlash we are experiencing right now is not new and there are ways to combat it. Combating it is why it is called When We Rise. It means we can keep the pendulum from swinging too far backwards.

It is a really important lesson for activists. I hope it is a bright torch that can be passed to young activists, but also calls back older activists because we are not done.

WCT: I like the song "Rise Up," by Andra Day, that's used in the previews.

DLB: I can't take credit for that. As far as the soundtrack, we had all this period music picked out to transport an audience back to that time, but I didn't want it to be dusty. We went out to get some of the young talent of today to re-record songs from the past. That is what you will hear on the show.

WCT: Was it difficult to get so many big celebrities onboard for When We Rise?

DLB: Well, first we go for the best actors to bring the roles to life. We put the word out that we were doing a show with this subject on ABC and I think it got a lot of people's attention.

It is not often that actors can do roles like these that might push the needle towards equality.

We received a "no" only because of scheduling. My dream was Mary-Louise Parker for Roma, and that is where we started. Rachel Griffiths came next and suggested Guy Pierce. Michael K. Williams called in with a passionate phone call telling us about the people he had known that he lost to AIDS. Whoopi Goldberg cut her teeth performing in San Francisco and knew Pat Norman, so she was the ideal choice to play her. Gus Van Sant, who directed the first episode, did a Skype with Rosie O'Donnell, who talked passionately about gender. After reading Del Martin, it helped her understand these issues that she was dealing with better, so that role was perfect for her.

When you have a personal connection it is very meaningful. It can mean their performances will be incredibly authentic.

Look up the young cast, too, because they are fantastic.

WCT: You directed the last two hours. Did you want to direct more of it?

DLB: I only direct more when I think it is best for the project. When I spend so much time researching the script it important to have a collaborator to keep me objective.

Sometimes I am the ideal candidate to direct. In this case the last two hours are two hours that I lived. It made sense that I direct those two. It is about what serves the project the most. I try not to make it about ego.

WCT: Trump's State of the Union address is scheduled right in the middle of the series run?

DLB: It is, but ABC is stepping up in a major way to keep our audience. There is an increase in commercials to remind people to tune back in. They are making the first two hours available online. That is rather unheard of. It is a bold new step. They are airing a miniseries from head to toe over the course of one week. They haven't done that since Roots. They are showing a huge amount of faith in the show, which is a nice compliment.

I want conservatives to be able to watch both programs without it competing in any way, and introduce everyone to this diverse group of LGBT people.

WCT: What are you working on right now?

DLB: Right now I have a movie on HBO about Bayard Rustin and a TV show at FX called The Residence. It is an Upstairs, Downstairs story set in the White House. I also have a miniseries on Charles Lindbergh for HBO.

The thing that is most personal to me this year is that I am writing a book called Mama's Boy: The Story of Two Americas. it is about me and my conservative Mormon mom. We found where the bridges were between our two Americas. By shining a little light on it, I hope to make a dent in the divide.

When We Rise begins Feb. 27 and continues March 1-3 on ABC at 8 p.m. CT.


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