Under the Banner of Heaven Showrunner Dustin Lance Black: Representation Is 'Life and Death Critical'

The Academy Award-winning writer of Milk and creator of When We Rise sees urgent need for representation in entertainment and coalitions against legislation that threatens the rights of the LGBTQ community and women.

by | June 15, 2022 | Comments

Dustin Lance Black

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Pride Month Showrunner Spotlight: In June, Rotten Tomatoes will feature LGBTQ+ series creators and writers sharing their perspectives on representation on television and streaming, who inspired them, how the environment has improved, and where there’s still more work to be done.

To Dustin Lance Black, the issue of LGBTQ representation in the arts is a matter of life and death.

Black’s work as a screenwriter won him an Academy Award for 2008 film Milk, about San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to office who was assassinated in 1978. Black also wrote biographies of Real World star Pedro Zamora and FBI founder and 37-year Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose sexual preferences have long been debated. On television, Black wrote for HBO’s Mormon-polygamist drama Big Love and created the miniseries When We Rise about the history of the gay rights movement.

His latest series is Under the Banner of Heaven, based on Jon Krakauer’s book about the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar Jones). Brenda’s brothers-in-law, Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Ron (Sam Worthington) were convicted of her murder. Latter-day Saints community leader Ron claimed God told him to remove Brenda, and others, for questioning their practices.

The story is close to Black’s heart. He grew up in a Mormon family and came out at 20, marrying swimmer Tom Daley in 2017. Together they have a son who turns four this month.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Black about representation past, present, and future, and he had dire warnings not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for women.

Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: How important is representation in entertainment in today’s political and social climate?

Dustin Lance Black: It’s sadly once again becoming life and death critical. The more we were able to share who we are and tell our stories and be seen, the more it corrected the misconceptions, and the more we were able to live free of the stereotypes and frankly the lies about gay people. You’re seeing the opposition to LGBTQ equality, people who — I don’t understand how this is any of their business or why it even matters to them — are being very clever about how to get that pendulum of queer progress moving backward again, which is about closeting.

Say what you will, laugh all you want about the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida, but it is very clever and very hurtful. It does have the power to potentially shut down LGBTQ storytelling. Without that, out of fear or shame or what not, we hear less of the stories. So the record of who queer people are can become muddled with misconceptions again. So it’s more important than ever that we have film and television shows out there filling that void that are willing to and happy to say, “Gay gay gay gay gay gay gay.”

Do you see new movement coming together to fight anti-gay and anti-trans legislation in various states?

Black: This isn’t just exclusive to the rollback of trans equality. This is also about how women are starting to have their rights chipped away at, how the United States government and soon the Supreme Court is going to attempt to say that gender should determine destiny. Queer people and women are aligned in the idea that it should not. Gender should not determine destiny.

It’s going to take a lot of queer organizations and activists and people not just advocating for LGBTQ equality, but understanding those connections. We’re going to have to form coalitions of people who are not protected equally in order to push back and get the pendulum of progress moving forward again. If the Supreme Court does what I’m afraid they’re going to do to women’s equality, the queer rights movement needs to stand up, lock arms and get behind our sisters.

MILK, Sean Penn,

(Photo by ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everet)

How have you seen LGBTQ+ representation change in filmed entertainment since you began working?

Black: This is the good news. This is where it’s incredible what’s happened. I can speak to my experience on Pedro a long, long time ago, 20 years ago, and then on Milk. It was almost impossible to get things made that had queer characters in it even, and then you dare have a queer subject matter on top of it — holy smokes.

It’s really thanks to the success of, say, the Will & Graces and the Brokeback Mountains and their financial success that we’re able to start to build on that. Thankfully, it’s still being proven. You can see in the diligence of these writers and creatives and filmmakers continuing to put queer characters into the shows so that perhaps one day we’re represented in proportion to how they exist in the real world.

We’re not quite there yet but it is great to see the Heartstoppers of the world come out and be embraced. To see these LGBTQ storylines, or Pose, some of these shows that show us in all of our diversity. Heck, I still think the two more important queer shows of all time are probably The Real World, which started to have gay characters, and now RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is just exploring all kinds of nooks and crannies of our very diverse, colorful, amazing communities.

POSE -- "Series Finale"

(Photo by Eric Liebowitz/FX)

What TV shows do you look to for inspiration and do a good job representing the LGBTQ community? Would you say Pose and Drag Race then?

Black: That’s a tough one because what is “representation” and what’s “good representation”? I’m not here to prescribe that for other people. Yes, you look at Steven Canals and what he did with Pose, and this is him and his team and their vision of this queer history and these queer moments. So I think, yes, because it’s particular to them, and they’re exploring their experience of being queer which is very, very different than, say, Milk.

Yes, I love how on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’m learning about new ways of being queer. And if I’m learning, I think the world’s learning. That is so incredibly clever that they’ve wrapped it in this game, this contest and it’s colorful and entertaining and vibrant and funny. I’m sorry to tell you, it’s not just those things. It’s also educational and illuminating and exciting in what we’re uncovering and discovering. I actually think RuPaul’s Drag Race goes very, very deep. Those kind of shows are important to me; that keep showing us that we don’t yet know who we are. This process of discovering who we are has not yet met its end. We’re not there yet.

Which artists from the LGBTQ community inspire you?

Black: In the past, I just think there’s incredible courage in people from Marlon Riggs to John Waters. These are people who stood up when it was dangerous, illegal even, to be queer, and let their voices be heard. That kind of courage was very important then and sadly is looking like it’s going to be very important looking into the future.

I’m more interested in the people we haven’t met yet. The privilege of being in my position now is I can help lift that voice. I’m actively looking for that. This story could get me in trouble because there’ll be a lot of DMs in my inbox and that’s fine. New is new. New means undiscovered. New means hasn’t been given the credit they’re due yet. New means people don’t see the value in their very unique history in their story, in their lived experience yet. New means new, and that’s what I’m after.


(Photo by FX)

Has the reaction to Under the Banner of Heaven been as complicated as you expected?

Black: The reaction to Banner has been actually less aggressive in terms of pushback than I expected. The opposition, which is really the Mormon Church, and not the mainstream Mormon Church, not the rank and file Mormon Church. It’s leadership in the Mormon Church and their newspaper. It’s been quite weak frankly. Nothing so far, to me, that they’ve raised feels like it snaps the authenticity and the power of what we’re trying to say in the show, what we’re trying to illuminate in the show. I think that’s a credit to our team, our diligence of trying to get things right, authentic, as true as possible. Frankly, any pushback I’ve heard I just say, “Go read a real history book. Go ask the experts. If you start to trust the Mormon Church with history, you’re going down a dangerous path.” It just takes a quick read of The Book of Mormon to go, “Hmm, this might not all be true.”

Under the Banner of Heaven

(Photo by Michelle Faye/FX)

Is it always dangerous for people like Brenda who question any community?

Black: No, it’s not always dangerous for women and minorities to question the status quo. I think it’s always courageous. I think curiosity is courageous and there are places where people are celebrated for doing that. There are universities, writers groups. There are places in the world that are more embracing of a progressive point of view, that do believe in the equality of human beings no matter their gender, the color of their skin, their background, who they love. There are places like that but there are still too few places like that.

I particularly take my hat off to people who show the courage of curiosity to challenge the status quo like Brenda Wright Lafferty did. And it’s tragic what happened to her because she dared ask questions, but I think the [wrong] thing to do, if people see the show and learn her story, is to say, “OK, I want to be safe, so I’m just going to be quiet.” The way out of this darkness is to raise your voice, is to get louder. We need that right now in a big way, particularly when it comes to women’s equality in the United States of America.


(Photo by Michelle Faye/FX)

It’s shocking to have to say but women’s equality in the United States of America is being rolled back. If we let them win this, they will not stop with our mothers and our sisters. To those women out there who are showing the courage to ask questions in places where that can be dangerous, I think we need to let them know we’ve got their backs. I wish more people had had Brenda’s back back in the day. She might still be here with us.

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