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Dustin Lance Black wants 'When We Rise' to unify a divided America and inspire activism

Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths and Mary-Louise Parker in Dustin Lance Black's mini-series
Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths and Mary-Louise Parker in Dustin Lance Black's mini-series "When We Rise."
ABC/Phil Bray

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With the ABC miniseries "When We Rise," award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wants to bring the history of the gay rights movement into America's living rooms in the hopes of bridging a divided nation and inspiring activism in a new generation.

When Black wrote the screenplay for “Milk,” about the influential gay rights activist Harvey Milk, it was not an easy sell in Hollywood. But the film was eventually made by director Gus Van Sant and Black won a screenwriting Oscar. Black says: "I wrote 'Milk' for me. I wrote it for the younger version of me that had no clue that there are people who'd ever fought for my rights." 

He had an easier path to green light with "When We Rise," the four-part eight-hour series airing this week. He also had a different mission for this story. He tells The Frame he wants "to help LGBT people know that they have [a history] and it's really rich. And also straight people to say that this is a civil rights movement like any other." 

For Black, it was vital that this miniseries didn't solely represent the gay white man's perspective. To that end, he hired directors and writers whose life experiences differed from his. (Dee Rees is among the directors.) He also made the featured characters in the series include a trans woman, a gay African American man and a white lesbian. According to Black:

I am sick and tired of the myopia in the gay and lesbian movement. It'll doom the movement. These characters came from the black civil rights movement, the women's movement and the peace movement.

Black tells The Frame that making "When We Rise" for ABC was deliberate and personal. He wants to reach as wide an audience as possible and having it air in prime time on broadcast TV increases its prospects. 

Below are highlights of Dustin Lance Black's conversation with The Frame's John Horn.

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of this page or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Interview Highlights:

On how he hopes to introduce his Southern biological family to his LGBT family:

I grew up in Texas, but my family is [from] Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana — a military family. You're either Mormon or Southern Baptist in my family. They're incredibly conservative and I love my family. And here was this [network] that we watched as children, that we were allowed to watch because it told family stories. They were interested in telling an LGBT story. Right away I said, This is an opportunity to introduce my LGBT family to my actual family.

On pushing the boundaries of network TV: 

In fact, ABC helped me push the boundaries a little bit. There's some language that you're not allowed to use on network television. I don't know if this is law or rules, but you're not supposed to say the word faggot on television. It's hard for me to even say that word because I know how that word's been used against me in my life, especially where I come from. Certainly generations before me heard that word wielded like a weapon. It is hurtful and shaming. And I said, If we can't include that word, this show will not be authentic. ABC legal had my back and made sure I could utilize that word and others that helped make it an authentic experience. And sure, gay and lesbian people kiss each other. You can't keep that out because then what are we talking about? 

On bringing two Americas together:

I wrote this series for my family in the South — for my family and what people call other America who don't know this history. But I also think we don't know how much we have in common. Gay and lesbian people want to love and be loved. Some of us want to get married. Some want to have and build families. We want our kids to have their lives be a little bit better than what we've had. There's a common language there and if we just focus these LGBT stories on what we have in common, and utilize some of that common language, I think there's a chance for this to be a healing series. And boy, do we need it right now.

On making the history of LGBT rights part of our shared national history:

For the most part, the whole world has a lot to learn about LGBT history. My family in the South and my LGBT community have so much to learn about where we fought for our rights, how we fought for our rights, how we've maintained them, how we've pushed back in a backlash. Unfortunately, unlike say the black civil rights movement or the women's movement which have rich detailed histories — histories you can read, histories in song and in poetry, history that's been popularized in cinema and television — LBGT history is just starting this journey. I think because publishers and movie studios weren't interested in this history. They weren't going to green light a movie or television show just 10 years ago about Harvey Milk. I'm sure there weren't huge advances for people writing books about LGBT history. These are only labors of love. And for the most part, over millennia, the history of gay people — there was so much shame in being an LGBT person. Not everyone was coming out, so why would people record the history of something they might have even felt shame about themselves?

On why the LGBT movement needs to intersect with other movements:

I am sick and tired of the myopia in the gay and lesbian movement. It'll doom the movement. These characters [in the series] came from the black civil rights movement, the women's movement and the peace movement.

There were a lot of people flocking to San Francisco at that time and the mayor had a different idea. He wanted to bring corporation and tourists. What he didn't want was the parks filled with hippies and protest marches. So there was a decision to move those sorts of people out of the city. So these young kids flocking to San Francisco because they'd heard this is where the peace movement is and this is where women can find progress and even LGBT might even find safety — what they found was an incredibly hostile police department. That began this fight that they didn't expect. The summer of love was dead.

On casting Ivory Aquino to play the activist Cecilia Chung:

The hair on my arm raises whenever you say the name Ivory. She's, first off, one of the most brilliant actresses of her generation. There are four trans characters based on real people in this show. It was critical to me that we cast trans actors and actresses to play those roles. What I was worried about was that we wouldn't be able to find people who are willing to be openly trans and who had acting chops. I was dead wrong. We had an abundance of actors and actresses who were fantastic come [to audition]. 

Ivory's audition was amazing. I just went back to my casting directors and chewed them out and said, I need someone who's trans for this role. They said, Lance, you need to call and have a conversation with Ivory. I called Ivory and I said, Ivory, you are a fantastic actress. I know some of the stuff you've done. But I want a trans person to bring their own experience to this role. I think that's valuable. She said, Lance, I'm going to come out to you right now as trans, and this isn't something I've talked about with many people. 

Ivory's performance is stellar. It's heartbreaking and inspiring. But also watching the real life story unfolding before me as she comes out as trans to her friends and co-workers is also really inspiring. I hope her story continues to inspire more people to do that. People have been saying it long before Harvey Milk. But Harvey Milk said it loud and clear: coming out is the key to LGBT equality.

On how to cure "fear of difference" in the U.S.:

There's a lot of fear out there right now about difference. My opinion is the cure for fear of difference is to shine a very bright light on the truth and to do so in a way that both sides can understand. That's the design of this show. Some of the critics who are a little more arty or progressive might say, I've seen this story. But I think it's time for us to tell these stories as a family and a way that's understandable by both Americas. 

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of this page. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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