Saturday, November 18

Q&A: Alum, creator of series ‘When We Rise’ talks importance of LGBTQ history


UCLA alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote and directed “When We Rise,” an ABC docu-drama miniseries that follows a group of real-life members of the LGBTQ community from the 1970s onwards. (Eike Schroter/ABC)

UCLA alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote and directed “When We Rise,” an ABC docu-drama miniseries that follows a group of real-life members of the LGBTQ community from the 1970s onwards. (Eike Schroter/ABC)


The “we” in “When We Rise” is the most crucial part of the TV show’s title.

It speaks to the idea that historically underrepresented groups are strongest when they join together and fight as a united coalition, said Dustin Lance Black, the show’s writer and creator.

The UCLA alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 2008 film “Milk,” created ABC’s docudrama miniseries “When We Rise,” which premiered Monday. It follows a group of real-life members of the LGBTQ community from the early 1970s until 2013. It chronicles a comprehensive and untold history of the LGBTQ movement that begins with the 1969 Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York City, and continues to the recent Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act.

[Throwback: Screen Scene: “Milk”]

Daily Bruin Arts & Entertainment’s Olivia Mazzucato spoke with Black about the importance of imbuing the series with authenticity, his position as an LGBTQ role model and the way in which he hopes the show will touch its audience.

Daily Bruin: How does this project compare to your previous work?

Dustin Lance Black: When I was thinking who I was writing for, (“Milk”) was written for me as a kid growing up in a very conservative, Mormon military home.

Because it’s on ABC, I thought (“When We Rise”) is an opportunity to tell these stories and not be preaching to the choir. I thought much more about … writing it, yes, for my LGBT family, but also for my Southern family who I still love and adore. … This history is wrapped in family stories because a story that centers on family and love and raising kids – that’s universal language.

DB: How did you select the real-life people that became your characters?

DLB: In film and TV, as an underrepresented population … Hollywood lets (LGBT characters) have a dramatic life, maybe even a political life, as long as (they) die at the end. And I thought it’s about time we depict LGBT characters who can live full lives, lives full of humor and emotion and drama, that they could even become political and rise up and center their lives on their families and they could still survive and thrive. So I wanted most of my characters to still be alive. And that really narrowed it down.

DB: How did you find the right tone for the series?

DLB: What was most important was authenticity … making sure it looks real enough that it would incorporate well with archival footage. That’s all because I wanted young people, when they watched this series, to never doubt that it’s true, to never doubt that this really happened.

This is radical in that we are finally claiming a history and I don’t want this history easily dismissed. I want it to be as unassailable as possible. The attacks that we’ll receive from the far right will be that this isn’t true. People who are opposed to the equal treatment of their neighbors understand that if their neighbors have a history they can be proud of, they become stronger.

[Related: Alumna earns Emmy nomination for casting ‘Roots’]

DB: Why did you choose to tell a multidecade story?

DLB: This is about starting to create an accessible history. … History will let young LGBT people out there in the United States today know that they are not alone … they have forefathers and foremothers who fought for them and worked for them. They have very strong shoulders to stand on.

I hope for young LGBT people, who might be living in fear and isolation, that it gives them hope and it gives them power and most importantly, it gives them a roadmap to join a fight that’s not finished. I also hope that history is like a torch that is bright enough to call older generations back to the fight. Because we are not done.

DB: Do you feel extra responsibility writing this as a role model for the LGBTQ community?

DLB: Oh my God, I do. I feel a lot of responsibility every single day. And it’s at times terrifying. I do my very best to help make our people strong and to give us the tools we need to keep moving forward. I don’t always get it right, and when I don’t, it hurts. But I was raised by a paralyzed mom who raised three boys on her own and fought like hell to get things right when it was very difficult and taught us to get back up when we fall down and to keep fighting. She’s gone now, but I hear her voice in my head and I do try my best every single day to do good for my LGBT family.

DB: What advice do you have for UCLA students who also want to tell stories that are true to them?

DLB: I always tell people to follow their passion and, in doing so, do it your way. You don’t have to follow along. If you have an idea that no one agrees with, who cares? Keep pursuing it.

The most valuable thing any artist or activist has is their own very personal history – who they are, and not the ways they are similar to their neighbor or their friend, but the ways they are different. Their differences are what will make them most powerful.

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