You might not know him by name, but you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with the work of Dustin Lance Black. The 42-year-old multi-tasker wrote the screenplays for feature films Milk and J. Edgar, worked on TV series Big Love and Faking It, and penned 8, a play about the overturning of Proposition 8 (the banning of same-sex marriage in California).
For his latest project - the SBS miniseries When We Rise, which follows the history of the US gay rights movement from 1969 to the 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage - he was the creator, writer and executive producer, as well as directing two of its eight episodes.
Not one to stay behind the scenes, Black is also incredibly involved in LGBT activism and civil rights work. Chances are, someone will make a film about him one day.
His Mormon upbringing came in handy for his first major screenwriting job…
Black’s big break was as a staff writer on HBO polygamy drama Big Love. He was the only writer on the series with a Mormon background and was able to lend some authenticity to the scripts. Black admits his mother “said after certain episodes of Big Love: ‘Do you really have to share everything that went on in our family with the whole world?’”
… but made dealing with his sexuality in his formative years difficult
“All I’d had were negative messages from the church about going to hell,” Black told the Huffington Post UK about the Mormon stance on homosexuality. That his family was also in the military and based in Texas compounded matters. “It’d been made clear that I was definitely somebody to be excluded, and being from the South, that I would bring shame to my family if anybody found out.”
Writing a film about gay activist and politician Harvey Milk was intensely personal
After his family moved to San Francisco when he was 13, Black learnt about Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected politicians in the US. “[He] was the guy who I still think saved my life in a way. When I first saw a copy of [documentary The Times of Harvey Milk], I remember just breaking down into tears,” he recalls.
He spent five years researching the politician’s life. “I wrote Milk for me,” Black says. “I wrote it for the younger person of me that had no clue that there are people who’d ever fought for my rights.”
Getting Milk made was a struggle...
Despite all the time and effort spent on the Milk script – Black tracked down contemporaries of Milk’s for interviews to help craft his story – Hollywood was reluctant to jump on board. Director Gus Van Sant told Canada's Globe And Mail that even after he was attached “it was really hard to find the money. People were hesitant.” The power of the words eventually shone through. “It was pretty emotional when you read the script,” Van Sant says. “You found yourself getting choked up. And pretty much everyone had that reaction.”
… but then he won an Oscar for it
In 2009, Black won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. His emotional speech was a talking point following that year’s ceremony as he sent a message to “all the gay and lesbian kids out there… that you are wonderful, beautiful creatures of value”. As the same-sex marriage debate raged in the US at the time, he also revealed that Milk’s story “gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am, and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married”.
He devotes a huge amount of time to civil rights activism
Also during that Oscars acceptance speech, Black said, “Very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally.” And he meant it. He was incredibly involved in the efforts to legalise same-sex marriage in the US, especially the fight against California’s Proposition 8.
In 2009, he was a founding board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supported the plaintiffs in a federal court case challenging the law. He’s also served on the board of the Trevor Project, helped organise and spoke at a 2009 LGBT demonstration in Washington that attracted 150,000 people, and co-founded Uprising Of Love, which seeks to assist LGBT activists internationally.
He’s one half of a gay power-couple
Black has been engaged to British Olympic diver Tom Daley since October 2015. They are one of the most high-profile same-sex celebrity couples in the world thanks to their active social media presence and willingness to go on the record about their relationship. “We’re not perfect,” Black told The Daily Beast. “We’ve got the same problems as any other gay couple and any other straight couple have. But it’s 90 per cent great. And that’s better than most, I think.”
His projects attract A-list talent and reach millions
Rachel Griffiths. Mary-Louise Parker. Whoopi Goldberg. Guy Pearce. Rosie O’Donnell. These are just some of the stars that appear in When We Rise, which is airing in a key primetime slot on a major commercial network, ABC, in the US - and here on SBS. Black hopes the miniseries can transcend the LGBT audience and appeal to a wider demographic. “I wanted to make it at ABC, because I knew there was an opportunity to reach an audience that needs to hear it.”
When We Rise is streaming now on SBS On Demand, fast-tracked from the US as part of the 2017 Mardi Gras season. It will premiere on SBS Saturday March 11 at 8.30pm.
Watch the first episode right here: