In his inspiring Oscar acceptance speech for Milk, the 2008 film about the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay city official Harvey Milk, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tossed down the gauntlet for LGBT rights—and he's been a tireless fighter for the cause ever since. Along with crusading for marriage equality, Black has chosen writing and directing projects that reflect his commitment to social justice. "I'm drawn to making films that in some way move the social conversation," he said. "I want them to entertain, but for me, I can't really get up in the morning and do all the hard work and keep pushing if I don't feel like in some way it moves the needle."
Black was recently tapped by Pereira & O'Dell to direct three short films for Coca-Cola in Latin America, challenging young people to choose compassion over bullying. One of the films, "The Text," revolves around gay teens. Another series of ads, from JWT New York for Tylenol, examines the makeup of the modern family. Next up for Black: When We Rise, an ABC miniseries about the gay-rights movement.
Adweek: How did the Coke campaign evolve?
Dustin Lance Black: They knew they wanted to do one that was aimed at the LGBT community. And then they wanted to do two more that had the same idea of a crossroads moment where you've got to make a decision: Are you going to go the way of kindness, or are you going to go for the easy joke when someone's having a tough time? If you do something with acceptance and kindness, you can create a true friendship.
What's the response been like?
The campaign in general is doing quite well, but the response in the LGBT community to "The Text" was remarkable. I heard from one of the heads at the ABC network about how much it moved her. I heard from Cleve Jones, one of the leaders of the LGBT movement, about how much it moved him. And these aren't people I sent it to. They found it, which I find remarkable, since it's in Portuguese on the Internet. For Coca-Cola to take a pro-diversity, pro-equality stance creates a lot of goodwill in the LGBT community. It's heartwarming for the LGBT community to see that a global brand would embrace this community because, let's be honest, there are places in the world that know about Coca-Cola where it is still a death sentence to be gay.
What about cynics who insist that Coke will do or say anything to sell products?
Some of them are very critical of what the intent of the brand might have been. And I say, "Yes, their intent was to win a market, and their intent was to sell their product." My intent was to send the message that diversity is a good thing and LGBT people and their families deserve respect and love. Well, I'm not going to skip an opportunity to send a pro-equality message just because they're selling a product alongside it.
Tell us about the Tylenol spots, which use real people, not actors.
They wanted to weave gay and lesbian families into the fabric. So you see very traditional, nuclear-looking families, you see interracial families, you see an adopted family, and you see a couple of gay dads with their newborns. At the end of the day, all of these families are very similar and potentially identical in the things they care about.
Do you have a favorite ad of all time, one you wish you had made?
If I loved it, I shouldn't have directed it. It found its right director, right? If I want to be the director on it, it means that there's something about it I think that they did wrong. And frankly, I watch a lot of films; I don't watch a ton of commercials. I watch some, particularly when I'm about to shoot some, just to get up to speed on where commercials are. It's probably a terrible thing to admit.
Talk about your upcoming series.
When We Rise is an eight-hour miniseries on ABC about the history of the LGBT-rights movement from 1970 to today, but it follows three characters who are [also] from the black civil-rights movement, the women's movement and the peace movement. We start shooting that in a few months. It's When We Rise, not When Gay People Rise. It's about how everyone benefits when we lift up any one group in this country.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.