Tuesday, February 18

Screenwriter uses emotional films to spread message about marriage equality

UCLA alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black recently won the Writers Guild of America’s Valentine Davies Award, an honor he was presented with Feb. 11 for his work as an LGBTQ rights activist. Black said he will continue to produce works that raise awareness for social justice issues. (ABC/Phil Bray)

Dustin Lance Black promised LGBTQ children that they would soon have full, equal federal rights on the stage of the 2009 Academy Awards.

After receiving the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his film, “Milk,” the UCLA alumnus stepped away from film to work as an activist, bringing cases of marriage equality to federal courts. When Black returned to the industry in 2017 with the ABC miniseries “When We Rise,” he said he wasn’t sure how his time as an activist would impact or potentially hinder his film career.

About a year later, Black discovered he would receive the Writers Guild of America’s Valentine Davies Award, an honor he was presented with Sunday. According to the Writers Guild Awards website, the award is designed to recognize screenwriters whose work brings honor and dignity to the community. Black said he will continue to work on stories that use emotion and character development to change people’s minds about social justice issues.


“I realized rather quickly that if we made political arguments or science-based arguments, that the opposition was just going to entrench itself further and fight back,” Black said. “The way to change minds was to start with people’s hearts and to tell personal stories.”

Black’s approach to storytelling as a medium of change sets him apart from other filmmakers, said Teri Schwartz, the dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

“His worldview, his ideals, his vision and mission (are) about using the power of story to enlighten, engage and inspire change for a better world,” Schwartz said.

Telling stories became a central part of Black’s cause, whether it was sharing the experiences of plaintiffs involved in real court cases or dramatizing the court proceedings themselves. Black’s 2011 play, “8,” chronicled the trial that overturned Proposition 8 in detail, an amendment that aimed to prevent same-sex couples from marrying in California.

The play used real transcripts and interviews from the court proceedings, but Black thought that telling the stories of the specific plaintiffs who were trying to get married and have kids would help audiences understand the personal, human aspect of the struggle. Before the case got to the Supreme Court, the play was produced in 50 states.

“It was our job to help make (the justices’) decision easier and to show them that public opinion had moved to a place where most people believed gay and lesbian people deserved equal rights when it came to marriage equality,” Black said.

Black said his interest in humanizing stories about difficult topics is a driving force behind his slate of projects in development. Upcoming projects for Black include a biopic about the life of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a musical about the Vietnam moratorium protests and a miniseries adaptation of the book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which deals with Mormonism.

The projects not only touch on Black’s own roots – Black grew up gay and Mormon in a military family – but explore themes he said he feels resonate with current issues. “Under the Banner of Heaven” tells the story of a double murder committed in the name of religion by two Mormon extremists. Black said the miniseries aims to create a discussion about the effects of domestic religious extremism.

“It’s an examination of what is the value of religion, what can make it go terribly wrong, and what of value is worth holding onto,” Black said. “I think very often we point to religious extremism abroad and I think it’s worth examining religious extremism domestically as well.”

Black approaches telling the stories of marginalized groups in a way that encourages audiences to connect with the characters rather than taking a didactic approach, said UCLA film professor Richard Walter, who taught Black at UCLA and later developed a friendship with him because of Black’s involvement with the School of Theater, Film and Television.

“There must have been tens of millions of people who saw ‘Milk’ all around the world,” Walter said. “And every single one of them would have had the experience of seeing the identity and the condition of the LGBTQ community affirmed and authenticated and nourished and rendered noble instead of what used to go on, which was to poke fun and belittle and mock.”

Black said he hopes to use the Valentines Davies Award as a platform to share his dream of using stories to instigate social change with fellow writers. He added he aspires to produce projects that specifically focus on inclusion and acceptance.

“I think it’s our responsibility as storytellers not just to resist and not just to get people angry, but to offer the vision that says with full equality, there is not lack of oxygen,” Black said. “With full equality, there will be plenty for all, and maybe even more for all.”

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