Bridging the Divide | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Bridging the Divide 

In Mama's Boy, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black explores reuniting red and blue America.

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click to enlarge PAUL ROMO
  • Paul Romo

If anyone understands what it's like to live in a divided world, it's Dustin Lance Black. The filmmaker, Oscar-winning screenwriter (Milk) and activist grew up in Texas and California, the son of a Mormon convert mother, with extended family from the conservative South. Yet he also grew up gay, struggling to keep his sexual orientation a secret from the mother and the church he feared would reject him if he was honest about who he was, before ultimately finding success in liberal Hollywood.

click to enlarge KNOPF PUBLISHING
  • Knopf Publishing

Black explores his own story in Mama's Boy: A Story from Our Americas, a fascinating and poignant combination of memoir and family history. While Black shares his personal experience from childhood through his professional career—including his key role as a spokesperson for marriage equality in the aftermath of California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8—he also focuses on his defining relationship with his mother, Anne, going back to her history as a polio survivor who fought to have the kind of "normal life" she was told would never be possible for her.

Speaking by phone from New York, Black notes that the book began with a cryptic promise to his mother that he interpreted as a call to keep fighting for unity between factions that seem impossibly separated. "My mom and I had discussed our concerns about how divided our family was becoming, and by extension, our country," he says. "I was raised Mormon, and though I don't go to church anymore, I'm still called to missions, and my mom called me to a mission. That call to action, and everything those words meant to me, that's why I've written this book."

The story that unfolds in Mama's Boy is both personal and universal, chronicling Anne's triumphs over her physical limitations, domestic abuse by Black's stepfather and the hard road to Anne accepting that her son was gay. Yet Black was also determined that it serve a function beyond a simple recounting of life events. "I didn't want to pull any punches," he says. "Why do a book like this if you're going to make believe? I don't like to think of this as a memoir, but as a story being told, a story with a purpose. If there was an event in my life that didn't contribute to that story of figuring out how to find common ground, I didn't include that story."

Finding common ground is indeed the powerful throughline in Mama's Boy, which might seem surprising given the somewhat unconventional trail blazed by Black and many other activists as they pushed for full marriage equality at a time when even many of their allies promoted more incremental policy steps. Yet Black doesn't see any dichotomy between that confrontational approach and his call for mutual respect and understanding. "I wanted to include the stories of the opposition I ran into in our own movement, because I wanted people to know that's the first place you might have to face folks who think differently than you do," he says. "You don't get down the road to meet the folks you think are your opposition until you navigate through the people you think are your allies."

Yet the most emotional moments come as Black finds himself in personal encounters with those who might be considered obviously antagonistic to his world, including leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more conservative members of his own family. In those moments, Black recognized the need to follow the example set by his mother when she visited California and shared dinner with him and many of his gay friends. "There came a place where I realized I hadn't had as much courage as my mom had," he says. "I hadn't made the effort to make connections with family and members of my faith. I let those relationships suffer, cool and grow silent."

If there's any overriding message to Mama's Boy, it's Black's efforts to promote renewed connections between people in different ideological camps, even in a time when people curate their news watching and social media to only represent their preferred point of view. For Black, the answer is to "re-curate your life. That's what it took for me. ... You're going to have to be as curious about them as you hope they're going to be about you. You're going to have to listen as much as you talk. You're going to hear things you don't want to hear, and they are, too."

Yet as a writer, and as someone who helped orchestrate a societal change few people thought possible at the time, Black believes firmly in the power of individual stories to transcend the barriers that keep people in their red and blue corners. "Facts, science and law don't tend to change hearts," he says. "Find the stories that illuminate those facts, that science, that law. I promise, you'll begin to find common ground. You'll find that you belong to a larger human tribe, a larger American tribe."

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