A decade ago, Dustin Lance Black quickly ascended in the ranks of Hollywood after winning an Academy Award for his screenplay for Milk, Gus Van Sant's biopic about Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. Ten years later, Black has become as recognizable for his activism as his filmmaking.
Black, who has been married to Olympic diver Tom Daley for nearly two years, played an integral part in overturning California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. In 2017, he produced When We Rise, an eight-part miniseries which chronicled the LGBTQ rights movement from Stonewall to now, earning him some GLAAD Media Awards. Currently, he is working on another television show, teaching screenwriting classes, and will publish a memoir called Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas at the end of April.
Black was raised Mormon in Texas by a mother whose political leanings did not agree with his sexual orientation, but he and his mother, who passed away in 2014, maintained a strong relationship despite their political disagreements. “Four or five years ago, my mom and I started having conversations about the divide in our country and how that was manifesting in our family, and it seemed that everyone we knew and loved were making politics their prime definition for who they are and what tribe they belong to,” Black said over the phone. “For us, that was a bit baffling. She and I had different political views for so many years at that point, but we never let it define us as a member of a tribe.”
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, where Black lives with Daley and their infant son Robert Ray, who will turn one this summer, became the catalyst for the filmmaker to dive back into his relationship with his mother. “It seemed that these divisions were only getting worse and if you watched the news or listened to politicians, the narrative being spun is, 'Yes, politics is the highest plane there is and should be the thing you use to define yourself and who you’ll communicate with in a civil or familial way'," he said. He wrote his memoir to combat that narrative, and to highlight the importance of using emotional, personal stories to get a point across a sometimes seemingly impregnable political divide.
In his Culture Diet, Black explains why we can’t let cable news dominate our dinner conversations, how fatherhood has strengthened his bond with some family members on the other side of the political aisle, and why he’s been “robbed of the movie theater-going experience” for the past year.
Why did you feel that now was the right time to release Mama’s Boy?
People had been encouraging me to write a memoir for a little while now. When I’d end up in the public eye for whatever reason, whether it was for my film work or the Supreme Court case that we were writing, I always felt that it would be a self-congratulatory book. And that felt purposeless. I didn’t understand why it could be helpful to anybody, and that’s how my mom raised me. [Laughs.] I always tell my screenwriting students to pay attention to if there’s a personal story you can tell from the heart that addresses what you feel are the missteps of the moment and of tomorrow. That’s something that can be helpful, but not told in a political way, told in a personal way. I had the story of me and my mom over decades, and my family over generations, and my relationship with my childhood church over many decades, all of which in their own way tie into this lesson that there is a higher plane than politics. That defines the book. People are always going to disagree politically, because we all come at the law from a different perspective with different needs. But to say that that’s the highest plane of human existence is a lie, and I hope this story’s purpose is to help people see and feel that there’s a higher plane than politics.
With regards to varying opinions on Brexit, how have you noticed the political divide playing out with your in-laws and Tom’s side of the family?
[Tom and I] are both on the same side of the Brexit conversation, but in my wider family here with Tom’s side, there are people who voted on both sides of the Brexit issue, to leave and to remain. Many have changed their minds along the way, and others have dug in deeper. But I come well armed in the situation. I know better than to come at these conversations with statistics or science, or even law. Even though I feel I have cogent arguments on my side of the Brexit issue, that’s not going to move people. I do my best to tell how the decision to leave has affected Tom, me, other people we know in common. You come from a personal perspective and you might change minds, but if you don’t, there are other things we can talk about. We don’t have to let the news headlines lead our dinner conversations. Hopefully, we all have rich enough lives and enough curiosity that there are other things to talk about. It’s lazy-minded to let our communication with our closest relatives be led by cable news shows.
How has fatherhood changed your perspective on life?
I sleep a whole lot less. I never realized it would be possible to get as much done as I have been with so little sleep. Tom and I decided we weren’t going to have nannies, and we wanted to raise our son as much as we could within our little family. I love it! Having a son has made it all the more important for me to stay in close contact with my family in Texas and Arkansas, whom I know full well voted for Trump. Though I didn’t, and have deep problems with this administration and many of them don’t. But I’m not going to let that cut the tie from my son to his own history and family. In the book, my cousin Debbie, who is more like an aunt because she’s closer to my mom’s age, she’s been very candid about who she voted for and I don’t agree. But because we worked hard to make sure we had more to talk about than just politics and found common ground in that we want our children to grow up strong and safe, she showed up at the airport unannounced on the day of my son’s birth. This is what family does. Thank god for her being there. We needed her because I don’t have my mom now. Having her teach us was helpful.
You mentioned that you’re working on a new show, what’s it about?
We’re doing an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven, for FX.
What's the first thing you read in the morning?
Do you want me to be honest? [Laughs.] I try to keep my phone out of my bedroom to help with insomnia, but the first thing I have to do is go through my emails and check on what’s happened in my career while I was fast asleep.
How do you get your news?
I tend to read The New York Times and The Washington Post online, and I go to the website for the BBC. I am a junkie when it comes to the news. On my ill-behaved days, that is what I do. Just don’t tell my husband! On my really good days, when I’m being well-behaved, the first thing I read is the last thing I wrote the night before to see how bad it is. And it’s usually pretty bad, and then I get to work fixing it.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Oprah Winfrey’s The Path Made Clear and I have a book on Josephine Baker. I’ve never really known enough about her so I’m into that. I have a new book, a friend’s sister wrote it, called Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels.
What are some of your favorite social media accounts to follow?
I’ve been really taken by a photographer named Lee Jeffries. He has an Instagram page where he photographs people in a very high-contrast, incredibly detailed, high resolution way. As a filmmaker, I’m interested in how you photograph people, and I’ve been stalking him and have some of his work. I’m so curious how that style could translate onto screen. I follow AOC, and whether I agree with her a lot, I am so inspired by her courage and her convictions. I can’t imagine having that much confidence at that age.
What’s the last thing you googled?
Table settings: How do you set your table? We do a Monday night dinner club at the house. Tom and I cook for between 12 and 17 people every Monday night. This week we’re serving soup as a starter, and I didn’t know where the spoon went, so I had to look it up.
What else is on the menu tonight?
A tandoori salmon with cauliflower rice and mixed vegetables. The starter is a sweet potato and roasted pepper soup with some bread. People bring desserts, from, say, Borough Market. The cost of entry is to bring something with too much sugar in it. Tom puts out cookbooks, so it’s sort of his way of testing recipes. They’re often very successful!
What television shows have been keeping you up at night?
We’re back on the Game of Thrones trend, like the rest of the world. We’re also watching every season in order of the Great British Bake-Off, which is my favorite show on the planet. It’s so lovely that in this time where everyone is moving so fast that you miss so many of the details in life and whatever we have in front of us, that you have these amateur bakers who literally are shedding tears over burning their caramel sauce for their cake. To see someone care so deeply about the details of something that looks so exquisite is incredibly refreshing to a writer, because I care deeply about the details of my script. It helps me feel less crazy. It’s also so civilized and there’s a lot of love and heart in it, so that’s a great antidote post an episode of Game of Thrones, where heads are coming off.
Have you been listening to any podcasts lately?
I had been listening to Fearne Cotton’s “Happy Place” and talking about joyful things. Tom and I were on it. I have my own podcast for the BBC called “Surrogacy: A Family Frontier,” which I’ve been focused on for the past six months.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
It must have been a really long time ago, I’m ashamed to say. We have not figured out how to get babysitters. The movie theater-going experience, we’ve been robbed of it by a very cute little man.
What’s the last concert you went to?
All of that is so foreign to me all of the sudden. It’s making me feel really sad! I can’t remember the last concert or movie I went to.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
I put together playlists that inspire me to do what I need to do or transport me to a certain place, so I’ve been listening to every record that the Bee Gees ever wrote. I’ve really been surprised. I found so much of their early work so poetic and beautiful, and I’d never really heard it before. We all know Saturday Night Fever, but we don’t know the stuff that came before. Early Bee Gees sounds a lot like The Beatles.
Are you into astrology at all?
No. [Laughs.] I’m not averse to it. When I was in my twenties, I would always read my horoscope. I always tried to see if it felt true or would lead my somewhere, but I’m busy enough, I don’t need anybody to lead me anywhere. I got it covered! Tom and I are both Geminis, and we often joke there are four of us in a room at any given moment. And I think that feels true!
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
This doesn’t mean I sleep—just to be clear. [Laughs.] I plug in my phone in my office, which is a floor below our bedroom. That’s something new, and I think it’s really healthy to not have the telephone in your bedroom. I was having sleep issues. Just having a floor away, it’s amazing how you don’t look at your phone in the middle of the night, and I do fall asleep much quicker. I had to get an alarm clock for the first time in decades.