It was inevitable, really. Dustin Lance Black breezed through New York to promote his new dramedy, Virginia, but in an interview, the conversation unfailingly circled back to politics, and the little matter of Barack Obama coming out in support of gay marriage.
“We asked for the moon, and many of us demanded the whole thing and took a strong position,” Black says. “And you know what? He gave us more, and sooner, and in a personal, passionate way. He gave us everything we asked for in that moment. There’s more—more to do and ask for and demand and insist upon. But for now, if you ask for something big, and you get it, you had better say ’thank you.’”
Black has been asking and demanding and insisting in the name of equality since he waltzed away with an Original Screenplay Oscar for 2008’s Milk. A hot name whose philanthropy goes well beyond the unspoken Hollywood job requirements, he’s been as much a cheerleader for gay rights as he has a teller of gay stories. He’s read rally cries to hundreds of thousands of activists in the National Equality March, he’s on the famed Trevor Project’s board of directors, and he served as a founding board member of the American Foundation of Equal Rights (AFER), using it to help propel his creative assault on Proposition 8. Black is the creator of 8, a 2011 play about the events of California’s Perry v. Brown (neé Perry v. Schwarzenegger) trial, which drew the involvement of everyone from Jane Lynch to George Clooney. He’s also the narrator of 8: The Mormon Proposition, a 2010 documentary that entwines the issue with the religion he grew up with in San Antonio, Texas, back when he could only dream of something more.
“Unlike other cultures that might suffer from their trauma, in the South, we celebrate our trauma,” Black says of his old stomping grounds (he now calls L.A. home). “We share our trauma. In fact, we’re more defined by how we react to it and the dreams we have on the other side of it. It’s sort of this aspirational culture, where the more you pretend you’re rising above, the better. How do we survive? We survive by dreaming. And who are the best dreamers? Mormons.”
At this point, it’s not too hard to pinpoint the Dustin Lance Black brand. Like an auteur who always returns to his favored genre, the 37 year old has a résumé with a steady thematic consistency, filled with iterations of Black’s insights on Mormonism, history, and homosexuality. His major film project after Milk was the script for 2011’s J. Edgar, which one could essentially read as Clint Eastwood’s Brokeback Mountain. Throughout its run on HBO, Black wore multiple hats on the crew of Big Love, a polygamist series that saw him climb the ranks from staff writer to executive story editor to co-producer. He won nominations from the WGA and GLAAD Media for 2008’s Pedro, a TV movie about AIDS victim Pedro Zamora of MTV’s The Real World. Is he telling another part of his own story with every work that he creates?
“Certainly,” he says. “I think that’s what I set out to do. My favorite writers, that’s what they do. And it doesn’t matter if they’re writing true stories or fiction. I think choosing projects that you think you can bring a part of your narrative to is very important.”
If Black is offering part of his own narrative with each new bit of media, then Virginia likely gives viewers their most intimate peek yet. Set in a Virginia beach town where the local sheriff (Ed Harris) is a Mormon with a lot of mighty influence, the film, which marks Black’s first major release as writer and director, is very much inspired by its maker’s childhood life. The title character, a schizophrenic lung-cancer sufferer played beautifully by Jennifer Connelly, is a hybrid of Black’s mother, who lives with physical disabilities, and another relative with a similar form of mental illness. Virginia’s son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), is a reflection (or, perhaps, refraction) of Black himself—a boy who grows up faster because of his single mother’s needs.
“There’s a certain thing that goes on when you’re being raised by a single parent who’s disabled,” Black says. “With my mom, it was a physical ailment, but it meant we had to take care of her many times. And it meant we had to take on the role of spouse, and grow up quickly, and have conversations that don’t happen between most mothers and their children. It happens out of necessity—out of survival. It means I’m incredibly close to my mother, and I love my mother like a mom, but also like a sister and, at times, like a daughter. [laughs] There’s an intimacy and a lack of boundaries there that I hope a lot of people can identify with. And it’s an intimacy that I found lovely. I loved growing up that way. It was one of the few benefits of growing up in tough circumstances.”
And what about the business of Black directing a film? For all of Virginia’s missteps (which are surely not few), the film fulfills its intent of communicating a personal story, and if nothing else, it announces Black as someone excitedly aware of how to utilize color. Be it Virginia’s bleached-blond hair, or a character’s yellow dress, or a pivotal collection of colored bottles, Virginia has a palette to remember, and one can’t help but think it was advanced by Black’s promotion of the proverbial rainbow. Even when Virginia speaks of a Mormon heaven, her mentions evoke people of all colors, with those of yellow skin beyond that of “the dry-cleaning lady.”
Black’s colorful views may well have hit their peak in late the April of 2012, when he penned an editorial for The Hollywood Reporter, and emerged in opposition of both candidates’ views of marriage equality. In a highly eloquent and unapologetic essay, he proposed that, perhaps, neither man is our candidate, and that we should take Obama’s lack of conviction as a warning of “sluggishness.” Of course, Obama turned around with more to say, in what felt, at least in part, as a response to Black’s very calls.
“I think,” he says, “that this is a completion of his evolution. And people might either not vote for him or just not vote at all. But I think it’s up to the equality-minded community to go out and reach out, to do the work, to introduce ourselves, to personalize our story, and to get them on the side of equality and get them on his side. I think he did something very politically brave for the gay and lesbian community, and it’s our responsibility now to make sure that he has the presidency for another four years. Because we have more to do with him. Like, we can’t have people worrying about coming out because they’re going to lose their job. And…[he takes a pause, looking about as if something whizzed past his ear]...we are not talking about this movie at all anymore.”