Forty Under 40: Dustin Lance Black
BY Ari Karpel
May 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
Dustin Lance Black is used to dreaming big. When the then-unknown screenwriter decided to tackle a script about his hero, gay civil rights revolutionary Harvey Milk, he approached Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the producers who had long held the rights to Randy Shilts's definitive Milk biography, The Mayor of Castro Street . By that time Zadan and Meron already had spent more than a decade trying to get a film about Milk off the ground, even recruiting heavyweights Oliver Stone, Gus Van Sant, and Robin Williams to their effort. When they turned down Black's offer to write a completely new script, he decided to go it alone.
With no financial backing, Black proceeded to do the legwork on researching Milk's life and write a script on spec. He befriended Milk's protégé Cleve Jones and interviewed the slain San Francisco politician's other surviving friends and colleagues. "He didn't dismiss us as dinosaurs," Jones says. "That was a big part of getting everyone to open up. People shared stores with him that they had stopped talking about years ago."
Then, just as it seemed likely that Zadan and Meron's Milk movie was about to get the green light at Warner Bros., with The Office 's Steve Carell starring, Jones introduced Black to his friend Van Sant, who signed on to direct Black's screenplay and brought Sean Penn on board to star. The rest is gay -- and Oscar -- history.
Now Black has another dream. In the writer's vision of the not-distant future, gay men and lesbians will have "full and inclusive civil rights in all 50 states." With the idealism of a political neophyte and the blind drive of someone who's recently tasted dramatic success, he rejects the state-by-state strategy long employed by the marriage-equality movement and proposes to "take the fight federal" by pushing for a gay and lesbian civil rights act. "Martin Luther King didn't say we will have freedom in Georgia and then maybe we'll go to Connecticut," Black says. "It was always about the entire nation."
He's teamed up with Jones, activist Chad Griffin, and Milk producer Bruce Cohen to form an organization, now in its early stages, that hopes to harness the momentum of the film and the reaction to Proposition 8 to work toward marriage equality. "The only ways we've ever made advances are when we've named the dream," Black says, confidently using a metaphor first articulated by Milk: "Not the crumbs, not the little pieces around the edges. You have got to name the dream or you'll never get it."
Black did just that on February 22 when he stepped up to the podium of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to accept the Oscar for best original screenplay. He used his moment in the spotlight -- in front of roughly 35 million U.S. viewers and untold numbers worldwide -- to convey his hero's sentiment: "If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than, by their churches, by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you."
As the camera panned to Penn tearing up and cheering, it was clear that the 35-year-old writer who had so eloquently given voice to our past is on a crusade to change our future.