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Dustin Lance Black wants to build bridges across our political divide. Here’s his not-so-secret plan

Dustin Lance Black wants to build bridges across our political divide. Here’s his not-so-secret plan
Dustin Lance Black in "Mama's Boy"Photo: TRAVERS JACOBS

Dustin Lance Black’s 2019 memoir, Mama’s Boy, is as much his mother’s story as it is his own. In it, the Oscar-winning screenwriter doesn’t just detail his own childhood, his coming out, his journey from Mormonism to Hollywood. He also chronicles his mother, Anne’s indomitable spirit which helped her overcome Polio and build a life for herself and her three sons after two abusive marriages.

Now, Black’s memoir is the basis for a new documentary airing on HBO. Director Laurent Bouzereau brings Anne and her son’s story to life in a timely film about bridging the divide between people who think—and vote—very differently. Ahead of the premiere of Mama’s Boy, Black and Bouzereau spoke to LGBTQ Nation about the film’s message, the state of LGBTQ rights, and the “soul-building” work of fighting for equality.

The film is based on Lance’s memoir. Laurent, what was it about the book that made you want to create this film?

Bouzereau: I was finishing up a film, I was in New York working, and I saw this book, Mama’s Boy. I was looking to do a film that had to do with who I am as a gay man, and tried to find a story that was not so much about Hollywood figures like I’d been doing, but much more about who I am. I read this book and even though I grew up in the 70s—I’m slightly older—and I grew up in France, I could see parts of myself in Lance’s story, and I immediately identified with it. And I thought, If I identify with it, other people will identify with it.

I also felt, when I read the book, that it was very cinematic. That’s always the big challenge. Do you have the illustrations? Can you get really powerful closeups during those interviews—the emotions. Reading the book, which starts on this sort of micro-story in a small kitchen, just like the movie, and ends in the Hollywood hills and on the stage at the Oscars, I felt, Oh my god, what a journey.

Lance, you published your memoir in 2019. You told your story, put it out into the world. Why did you want to revisit that story in this film?

Black: In the end, I’m a mama’s boy—it’s in the title of the book. My mother beseeched me to keep the bridges she’d built standing. Those were the bridges within our family, between people who vote very differently, think very differently, believe very differently. But by extension, those are the bridges that have fallen over the past few years in the United States and now globally. We’re all watching all these bridges fall. And that’s trickling down into our families.

I’m keenly aware that not everyone reads, sadly. And, so, to be able to take this story into a documentary form, I thought it gives it a chance to reach more people. And if they can hear that my mother had this philosophy that she put into action, which is very simple but takes a lot of courage, which is: share space with people you disagree with; come in asking more questions than trying to prove you’re right; and that that actually is healing. To think that there could be a documentary that urges people to do that and says that on the other side of that courage and curiosity we might rebuild family, and by extension community, and perhaps even country—well, how do I say no?

Laurent, the film begins with Lance’s 2009 Oscar acceptance speech when you won the award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. Why did you start the film there?

Bouzereau: Why not? I always felt that that speech, when I heard it, Lance made a very specific promise on that stage. It was a really powerful point to start, because when you make a promise and then your mother says, “You made a promise. What are you gonna do about it?”, it really resonates. It not only showed a great moment of triumph, but also set up the drama that was: How do you fulfill that promise? And ultimately what led up to that stage.

Lance, in that speech you made a promise that “very soon” LGBTQ people would have equal rights in the U.S. You talk about how that’s a promise your mother held you to, and it was kind of the impetus for you to become involved in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage. With everything that’s happened over the intervening years, what’s it like revisiting that moment now?

Black: Well, it’s a promise that’s still only partly fulfilled. It’s also a promise that has no end. It goes on forever. I get asked all the time when I speak at universities, by young people who are very passionate—they say, “This is hard work, it’s exhausting, it’s not always rewarding.” And anyone who’s worked in a movement knows you fight more with the people in the movement than with the people you think you’re against. “How long do we have to do this?”

And I say, “There’s great news: You get to do it forever.” Because as an activist who’s working in civil rights to defend a minority, well, minorities will always have to defend their gains. They’re never permanent. You’re a minority. You’re potentially subject to the whims of the majority at any moment. And so, that outreach work, that coalition building work has to continue forever. Good news! It’s soul-building. It makes you stronger! But it is hard, and from where we stand right now the pendulum is swinging backward in much the same way it was swinging backward in 2008 when Proposition 8 passed.

We fought for marriage equality and we won in the United States. But you know what? There’s other people in our community that aren’t protected well enough yet. And in some ways, that was the cause of the moment, so it made sense to fight that fight. But there’s others, other protections we still need. So, the fight goes on. The fight needs to become more global, because we’re leaving a lot of our family members in the queer community behind in places like Iran and Uganda, throughout Eastern Europe now. So, it’s a forever promise, and I’m not going away. But I’m also heartened that so many people seem to be willing to join in this fight.

I want to ask you about marriage equality, because there’s a section in the film about your involvement in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage and against Proposition 8 in California. As important as marriage equality was, I’m wondering whether you think of that fight differently now, considering all of the anti-LGBTQ laws that are being passed at the state level right now; the fact that the Supreme Court is hearing a case that could dismantle public accommodation protections for LGBTQ Americans. Might all that money and political energy have been better spent on something like The Equality Act, in retrospect?

Black: We were also doing that. We’ve been fighting on all those fronts. To me, it’s nonsense to say we only have enough money or enough energy to fight for one thing at a time. That’s nonsense. We were and have been and continue to fight on all fronts. Certainly, Chad Griffin, who was a part of the marriage fight, is the reason why we have an Equality Act that’s gotten as far as it has. We’re interested in all these things.

I think what happened, if we’re being very candid about it, marriage equality, though it seems out of order, it was kind of the next logical step. Much like letting gay people into the military, it’s a conservative issue. Conservatives can understand marriage and understand participating in the military. So, it doesn’t surprise me that it moved faster than other issues. It breaks my heart that other issues haven’t moved as quickly. I don’t like that either. But it makes sense to me that we were able to make faster progress there, because you could make, as one of our lawyers did in Newsweek, the conservative case for this.

Take a look at the Deseret News poll that just came out of Utah—a paper owned by the Mormon Church that financed Proposition 8. What was the percentage of people in Utah, which is predominantly Mormon, of people who now approve of marriage equality, of the recognition and protection of gay and lesbian relationships? It’s over 70 percent. So, you might not want to get married, but holy smokes, you’ve got all these conservative Mormon people in Utah now saying, “We get it now.” I’ll tell you what that’s gonna do: It’s gonna help us protect the gains we’ve made when it comes to accommodations, and push back. It’s gonna make it easier for Mitt Romney to vote in favor of continuing to protect gay and lesbian people in their houses and their jobs.

So, was it out of order? Yes. Was it helpful? Yes. Is there ever going to be the right order to do these things? No. We gotta do them all, and we gotta get it done as fast as we can so that the next generation has better lives than the three of us on this call.

Black’s mother, Anne Bisch Courtesy of HBO

Lance, when you published your memoir in 2019, you talked about it being a response to political divisions in the U.S. I think we can say unequivocally that things haven’t improved since then. Do you still think it’s possible to build bridges between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum?

Black: Yeah, I think it’s evidenced in some of the interactions we have in the film itself. I think that it’s going to take a lot of courage for people to actually do it. You might not like hearing it, but if you come into those shared spaces with people you disagree with, I challenge you to ask more questions than going in proving that you’re right. I’ll probably agree with you in the debates you’d make using science and law, but it ain’t gonna win in that room. It’s not gonna change a mind. It’s not gonna change a heart. If you wanna do that, you better get personal. And you better be willing to be curious about why someone who thinks very differently thinks the way they do. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. But that’s the way we moved the numbers on marriage equality and we need to continue to move those numbers in other ways, and come to an understanding about what we agree on—not just what we disagree on.

It can seem naïve. That’s what all the people I’ve ever admired have been labeled. And it might seem idealistic. But I’d much rather be wrong and be an optimist than be right and be a realist. I’m a student of Harvey Milk, and I think we need to paint a picture of a better tomorrow and give them some hope. This is something I do believe we need to believe is possible so we can get in the same room, so we don’t rip each other apart. And that’s not just about Republican vs. Democrat. That’s also about LGBTQ. We understand that some of us can’t stand each other, that we are very, very different; that some of us have it harder than one another. Those differences should define us. They’re powerful. Make your needs known. But don’t fall into the trap of letting those differences divide you.

So, what advice would you give someone who sees this film and decides they want to try to reconnect with friends or family who they may not agree with politically?

Black: Well, it depends on where you’re from. For me, I was trying to reconnect with people who are mostly Southern. I believe one of the greatest stages for change is actually the dining room table. And food is very important. So, set a table with some delicious food and maybe have a shot of whiskey, and you might get somewhere. That sounds simple, but sometimes it’s that simple. Fill the belly, have a drink, break the ice, so you can get to the place where you feel you can access emotion and tears. Whatever it takes to try and break through. And most of the time it’s not gonna work. But we’re doing it for those sometimes.

Bouzereau: All my friends and family are still back in France. But when I go back to France, I meet with all kinds of people that I’ve known for years, and we’re very, very different. And what Lance is saying, it’s especially true in Europe. Particularly in France, probably Italy, the dinner table is essential. I remember growing up, my dad would always say, “We’re having dinner, somebody pick a theme, and we’re gonna talk about this.” Of course, as a kid, I hated that. But now I realize what he was doing, and it’s exactly what Lance was evoking. It’s a tradition in my family to talk things out, and I’m so proud, because I’ve had an interesting journey myself, and sometimes it’s not always easy to share my views. And it was always done around the table.

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