WHEN WE RISE

[ 0 ] February 14, 2017 |

Dustin Lance Black
Foundations In LGBT History

~ by joel martens ~

Question: How many of you have seen an accurate representation of what the early days of the LGBT movement looked like?

If your answer is something like “Very few,” you wouldn’t be alone in that assessment. Precious little is available to illustrating the full scale of what we have accomplished and for that matter have endured, to get us to where we are today. Moments exist in film, television and other mediums offering snapshots, but few illustrate the full experience or show the arduous timeline signifying the full power and strength of the LGBT movement. Proud portrayals of the men and women who stood on the front lines, waging what could only be called at times…Social warfare.

As a child of the ‘60s, like many, I became familiar with protest and what social change looked like as it occurred. Though the Civil Rights Movement was distant to me personally, it became newly familiar through television and other mediums such as Life magazine, which brought the terrifying experiences of those fighting for equality so vividly into our homes. Anti-war marches and the battlefield horrors that fueled them became all too clear—because we watched what was happening in black and white—the course of those events changed because of it. Feminism and the women’s movement touched many of us too, bringing changes for our mothers, aunts and cousins, as they learned to live without fear…And in turn, demanded their share of equality’s pie.

Moments like these offered hope to those of us on the fringe and indeed in many ways, our first forays out of the closet were fueled by their fearlessness. Their courage helped to spurn the beginnings of and eventual rise of the LGBT movement. History repeating itself, though this time the doors being forced open, were ours.

Perspective is another luxury that time offers and we now have the capability of turning our gaze back to assess, offering a chance for us to impart what we have learned. Accurate representations of those experiences, in all arenas, including film, television, literature and the arts, are vital parts of being able to do this effectively. Thankfully, that task has begun. And, we are about to add another powerful piece to that proud lexicon.

When We Rise is an homage to those early LGBT stirrings and carries with it the hopes, joys, pain and suffering involved with the wins and setbacks great social change brings. It’s a beautiful beginning on a majestic journey and oddly timely for what we face today. We have Dustin Lance Black and those who worked with him to support this epic, multi-part series to ABC. When We Rise in part, tells the story of who we were, who we have become and how we got to where we are today.

dustin lance black

Black took some time to explain:

What made you decide to take on When We Rise?

It started about four years ago, when I heard that ABC was starting to option LGBT history properties. I was surprised by the rumor and asked my agent to connect me with the network to see if it was true…And indeed it was. They were interested in an LGBT-themed project, so I stepped in and asked if they would give me a little time to do research. It felt like a massive opportunity to tell some of our stories, directly to the folks who need to hear it the most. I’m talking about folks like my own family; folks from the South and from conservative backgrounds who all too often don’t know us. This felt like an opportunity to not only “Preach to the choir,” which I hope it still does, but to also offer it to those who might not know anything about our history.

That’s what is so significant about When We Rise as a network mini-series. The material is powerful of course, but it has also ended up being incredibly timely.

For sure. I started meeting people in New York first and then I found that so many of the activists I met there had spent their youth in San Francisco. Then I went to S.F. because I knew that I wanted to start right around Stonewall. I ended up starting just after, for many reasons and when I went to start my research, I of course called Cleve [Jones] and said “Here are the people I know I want to meet and I’m sure you have another list of people that I should meet” and he started making those introductions.

Jones was involved from the beginning and integral to the LGBT movement. Did you intend to include him as a character from the start?

I did not initially know if I would, since I had depicted him in a supporting role for Milk. But, I came to realize how important an activist he has been and still is. Most activists have a life-span of three to five years before they move on, because it is such tough work. The fact that Cleve survived the plague and has continued to fight on the other side of it, is unique. It became clear that he would become one of a handful of stories that I wanted to tell. But, I also wanted it to be far more diverse than Milk was and certainly more representative of the entire movement. It needed to include all the LGB and T: Black, brown and white, with men, women and trans people being depicted.

“History is not a straight line and it never has been. It is a pendulum and our job, as people of diversity, is to make sure it doesn’t swing too far back.” —dustin lance black

That is one of the things that I found rewarding about what I’ve seen so far. It is very inclusive and that unfortunately, hasn’t always been the case.

No, it hasn’t always been the case. There was criticism around Milk for being so “gay white male.” I also knew that I needed to tackle the fact that the gay movement in the Castro in the ‘70s was very racist and that gay men and lesbians did not work together. I was excited to finally tell the story of how we became LGBT. How we came to understand the necessity of working together and how we became so diverse, is all there. You see LGBT people fighting for our combined rights, but you also see how we fought each other along the way. I think that’s an important lesson for young activists to learn as they enter this fight—to expect not only to get heat from the people you perceive as your opposition—but also from your best friends and heroes.

We’re all feeling our way through this, it’s all new ground and people aren’t likely to agree all the time. The LGBT movement is incredibly diverse and it was only right to show it that way. It took about a year to decide who to portray, because we wanted them all to be true stories. But, it was not impossible, clearly, to find that diverse group. The LGBT people who built those makeshift families in the early ‘70s and then follow them from then until today.

It’s a way to show people who may not know, how much of a fight it was and what was sacrificed to get us here. I say that not because I think that the younger kids aren’t paying attention, I say it because there hasn’t been enough information out there for them. That is due partially to the fact that so many of the generation who would impart that information on to them—those that would have mentored—are dead. The AIDS crisis left a deep void in that process.

For many reasons, it is true that LGBT activism and our history have not been passed down to those who so desperately need to know it, so they can draw power from it. We lost our forefathers, those who fought so hard for us because of a plague. But, I believe too, that unlike almost every other minority, we are born “behind enemy lines.” We aren’t born into gay families for the most part, so our parents don’t know our history and aren’t passing down the steely resolve to survive as a minority, we must find that outside ourselves. It’s something many other minorities benefit from, because they are born to parents who understand the struggle.

It’s one of the main reasons I hope other artists make more LGBT cinema and television shows and write more books, so our history isn’t buried. We have such a richness there, but publishers haven’t lept to publish books in a way that reaches the local library, or studios haven’t green lit enough movies and television shows that talk about our history in a way that makes it accessible in a popularized fashion. Places that a young LGBT person born to heterosexual families, can go online and download a film or TV show to help understand there are people out there like them. That this is where I come from and why we are where we are as a group.

What was your primary agenda when you were assembling this? To tell the activists’ stories, or was it more about putting the gay rights movement in a historical context?

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. When I wrote Milk, I very much wrote it for a younger version of me. I wrote a movie I wish I could have seen when I was 14, 15 or 16-years-old, one that would have given me some hope. When We Rise, I wrote not just for my LGBTQ family, I also wrote it for my Southern, Christian, conservative, military family. Coming from that America, I understand you can come to the table with all facts, have the law and science on your side and preach about it for days and not change a single thing. If you want to change something, especially in the South, you must tell a story…And It had better be a family story and an emotional one. Then, you might change a heart and if you change a heart, you might change a mind.

That is why, coming into this, I only pitched this to one network. The network that as a kid from the south I grew up watching and that our family trusted. That was ABC, because they told family stories. My goal, was always to find through my research, family stories from the LGBTQ movement. Meaning, all the stories of the makeshift families we had to build to survive, the stories of the family we lost and eventually, what the stories are of the families some of us have been able to create.  That was my goal, to find those stories and shine a light on them, in the hope that they will reach beyond my LGBT family, to my other family in that other America.

It’s what finally changed the tide of the AIDS crisis.  It became personal because people lost brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts. Once the losses cut so deep, everyone had a story to relate to and it couldn’t be denied any longer.  Things like the AIDS Quilt made it impossible to deny and altered the course of everything.

Yes. Suddenly, everyone knew they had somebody in their family who was gay. Sadly, because some of them came out as they were placed into their graves.

What was the most profound moment for you around doing the series?

Doing a series like this is an incredible amount of responsibility and I can only answer it like this.  I did not want to be so arrogant to believe that I could do it myself. To try and do a show that is as diverse as it needed to be and pretend one gay white guy could do it and get it right.  I tried my best to step up to that by hiring other writers and other directors, who if you look at the list are incredibly diverse.  Gay, straight, black and white, there’s men and women, as well as trans characters in the show, who by the way, are actually trans. That wasn’t to be “P.C.,” it was because I wanted it to be authentic and I needed to know how things worked for people whose experiences are very different from mine. The most moving thing to me, was the awesome responsibility and how this group of writers and directors stepped up to that and how we all did our best to make it as authentic and unassailable as possible.

The choices you made around directors, casting and in the direction of the series comes through, because you see and feel the broader point of view.

If we’re talking about tone, style and direction in that way, I will say that yes, I wanted it to feel as authentic as possible. And listen, we also had to do this on a budget.  Some can spend whatever they want, but that’s not how network television works these days. Budget was always a constraint. The way I thread that needle, was to let it feel authentic, real and occasionally a bit rough. We also decided to lean a bit on archival footage, because every now and then I wanted to remind the audience that these things actually happened. I’m not making that riot up; I want everyone to have a glimpse of what it was truly like. It was a look I started using in Milk and we continued that style with this, to continually remind everyone, especially a younger generation, that this was not fiction.

Wise choice. A specific example of that for me, was using the footage of the AIDS Quilt. Seeing it lain out on the Capital Mall made it impossible to deny the crisis, simply because it was so massive, visually.  The quilt brought it home for me on a very deep level too, it’s how I found out the last person I had unsafe sex with back then, was dead…I found his quilt square when part of it was on view in Minneapolis.  It completely altered how I saw the world back then, because it made it so incredibly personal. 

Oh my god. Do you remember about what year that was?

About 1987 or so.

Say no more. How terrifying that must have been. I’m so glad to be hearing this from you.

Thank you. I guess that is why I’m so glad to have something like this on television. I think it’s important for everyone to understand this wasn’t just an instant in time. There were years filled with events and stories similar to mine. Death was everywhere, continuously, for all of us in the gay community…It altered the course of an entire generation. On top of that, we were dealing with years of systemic denial at every turn, because so many people thought, “We were getting what we deserved.”  My personal favorite was, “God is weeding his garden.” Virulent homophobia was everywhere.  Telling those stories is why this series is so significant and why I’m so glad you’ve made it happen.

Yes. And by the way, you know probably more than most that this isn’t the whole story and we need other filmmakers to step up and tell more stories if we’re going to get the full story.  So much happened before this series began around 1971, we don’t even touch Stonewall. We don’t touch in a significant way the Mattachine Society and so many of the brave men and women who came a century before.  It’s going to take a lot more work, to finally have a narrative for the LGBT movement that other movements have and benefit from.

Timing is everything and the universe works in such mysterious ways. That When We Rise is appearing at this moment in history, is truly stunning.

I never could have predicted how necessary the series could be and would give anything for it to not be…But, here we are. I can’t say I’m completely surprised. As a student of history and as an activist myself, I’ve watched with concerned as many minority groups that I care about, seem to be working far too independently. It was Nero who said, “Divide and conquer” and I’m afraid that is what’s happened.

Part of the motivation for doing this series and calling it When We Rise and my insisting those who were active in it weren’t just in the LGBT movement, but came from the women’s movement and the Civil Rights and Peace Movements, is that we would eventually discuss issues of immigration and health care, which I can’t believe how topical it’s about to become. It was important to me that we were discussing the intersectionality of these movements and how necessary it is that we work together.

r to l: rachel griffiths, mary-louise parker, dustin lance black, guy pearce, micheal kenneth williams, ivory aquino

Not only necessary, but vital. Change has been so significant over the last several years. In many ways, the Obama years have been illustrative of a paradigm shift. When any great change occurs, the reaction to that change is usually very intense. 

Yes. If you watch the series, you see exactly that kind of backlash happening a number times. It happened early in the movement and it happened again in the early ‘90s and into the 2000s with George W. Bush. What I hope the show demonstrates loud and clear is how you push back when the pendulum comes swinging back towards you. I hope people can draw comfort from the fact that this isn’t the first time and that we need to pay attention to where we stumbled.  The show certainly shows when we stumbled and in the end, how we eventually succeeded, which is mostly about how we start to recognize the interconnectedness of our movement.  I do believe that it is the only way to push back and put an end to a backlash.

History is not a straight line and it never has been. It is a pendulum and our job, as people of diversity, is to make sure it doesn’t swing too far back. The thing I keep saying time and again, is thanks to technology, we are aware that every single person on this planet is a minority in one way or another. It just depends on how you slice the pie. So, the job is to identify our interconnectedness and push back to make sure it’s a fair and equal world. It is all our jobs.

The history lesson begins in February.

How will you rise?

When We Rise premieres on ABC, running Monday, February 27 through Friday, March 3. Well, sort of… Ironically, thanks to a recently scheduled Congressional address by President Donald Trump, ABC was forced to modify its schedule. The series will take a break on Tuesday, February 28 to air his address, pushing back the next three installments of When We Rise by a day.

Serendipitous, wouldn’t you agree?

When We Rise premieres on ABC, running Monday, February 27 through Friday, March 3. Well, sort of… Ironically, thanks to a recently scheduled Congressional address by President Donald Trump, ABC was forced to modify its schedule. The series will take a break on Tuesday, February 28 to air his address, pushing back the next three installments of When We Rise by a day.

Serendipitous, wouldn’t you say?

Fore more information on the series and cast, go to abc.go.com.

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