Dustin Lance Black is having trouble sitting still. It's the morning after the Hollywood premiere of his new film, J. Edgar, a biography of the notorious and likely closeted head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. He fidgets in his seat a bit, gets up to close the door to escape noise in the hallway, and pours himself a drink. Despite the interruptions, Black is consistently alert and articulate. He's perhaps relieved that the long-anticipated and already controversial biopic is finally being released. Writing a screenplay about such a complicated man was obviously a challenge to the talented 37-year-old. Biographies have speculated on Hoover's relationship with Clyde Tolson, his rather erudite right-hand man, and some have painted him as a cross-dresser. The Hoover portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Clint Eastwood–directed film emerges as a somewhat sympathetic man capable of great cruelty yet tortured by his affection for Tolson (Armie Hammer). Black tells me that activist Cleve Jones said to him, "I can't believe you made me feel for that monster." Black explains his depiction by saying that if we continue to demonize Hoover, we learn nothing about what causes homophobic behavior. Black's goal is to understand the heart of a monster.
Black's restlessness has served him and LGBT people well. After deservedly winning the Academy Award for his screenplay for Milk and delivering a galvanizing acceptance speech, Black has directed a film, Virginia; is currently working on two screenplays; and is a founding member of the American foundation for Equal Rights, which is leading the federal case against California's discriminatory Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Black is so committed to this cause that he even penned a stage play, 8, taken from transcripts of the trial, that received a starry staged reading last month in New York. He also finds time to serve on the board of the Trevor Project, which offers crisis intervention for LGBT youth.
Black discusses with The Advocate whether he humanized a monster in J. Edgar (now in theaters across the country), the complicated relationship between Hoover and Tolson, the obligations that come with being a public figure, and even weighs in on the Brett Ratner controversy.
The Advocate: When did you first become aware of J. Edgar Hoover and what was your impression of him?
Dustin Lance Black: I was probably aware of him at a very early age. I grew up in a military family, which was also Mormon and conservative, so he was seen as a bit of a hero. Then as a gay guy coming out, you start looking into your own history and he’s seen as this villainous man. He blackmailed gay people and lesbians. I mean, there was certainly a file on Eleanor Roosevelt. He was heinous to, really, anyone who was different or had something to hide, which was highly hypocritical, since he had so much to hide. I thought that if we continue to demonize him, then we learn nothing. This was the most powerful man of the 20th century in the United States. We can’t get to the root of why, and we can’t fix the why, for me, that went to this big empty spot in his heart that society and his mother created. I met him as both a hero and a villain. The reading I did about him was the same. Every book had a political agenda. It didn’t really answer the why questions, it just answered what he did. When it did get into the emotional stuff, it was always sensational. I mean, they had him wearing a ball gown. I thought, Boy this just doesn’t ring true.
When the film was announced and all through production, there was a lot of speculation that it would be “de-gayed,” presumably due to having Clint Eastwood at the helm. What conversations did you have with Clint about the relationship between Hoover and Tolson?
Clint and I started talking immediately after he signed on. He wanted to know about the sources I’d used. He had so many questions. He wanted to know if his stutter was real or created. He really educated himself on Hoover’s life. He never once asked about the gay relationship or the love story. It wasn’t until we started shooting that I saw the reverence which he paid this loving relationship. It was incredibly moving to me that he never needed to ask. He treated it as if it was any other love story, with equal respect, dignity, and heart. In fact, he was the one who, after the fight scene between Hoover and Clyde, told Leo to tell Armie he loves him after he left the room. You won’t find those words in my script. This fight in the hotel room was all Clint. In terms of de-gaying, if anything, he made it more emotional and more true.
Did your research indicate they had a romantic or sexual relationship?
I don’t know how much sex they were having. I couldn’t anchor that in anything provable. I also didn’t need it for what I was trying to say. They may or may not have, but frankly, I wouldn’t want to see it. What’s important to me is they were not straight. They were two gay guys, in my opinion. Like any person who began his adolescence in that period, Hoover would have been very confused and very afraid. The things his mother says in the movie would have been things someone like that would say, based on what they heard. The story she tells about Barton Pinkus is true. He was a classmate who took his life after being discovered in a skirt and a bonnet. This is the world Hoover grew up in.