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Oscar-Winning Theater Grad Returns

UCLA screenwriting graduate Dustin Lance Black, who won the 2008 Oscar for writing Milk, comes home with a message of equality.


By Marc Cuenco

Published Jun 12, 2009 1:07 PM


Dustin Lance Black speaking at the Screenwriters Showcase after receiving TFT's Distinguished Achievement in Screenwriting award.

Next to receiving an Oscar, it was a night Dustin Lance Black would never forget. On June 10, his birthday, the Academy Award winner and UCLA alumnus received the Distinguished Achievement in Screenwriting award from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). Black was given the award during the Screenwriters Showcase at the Freud Playhouse.

"Does this come with a scholarship?" Black joked to the packed audience. "Because I need little more money for my next project."

UCLA Screenwriting professor Richard Walter, who presented the honor, described the screenwriter's award-winning film Milk as "truly heroic" and "impossible to forget." The moving and poignant film about slain politician and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk won Black an Oscar statue in 2008 for Best Original Screenplay.

Long before he was an Oscar winner, however, Black grew up in a devout Mormon military household in San Antonio, Texas. He moved to Salinas, California after his mom remarried, before attending UCLA. "I came here as a film fan, as an observer," Black said, his trophy firmly clutched in his hand. "My very first class was taught by [outgoing TFT Dean Robert] Rosen. I learned about the language and the power of the moving image." Black directed two documentary features, On the Bus and My Life with Count Dracula, and the short film Something Close to Heaven. In 2004, he wrote and produced the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated TV series Big Love, and was the sole Mormon on the controversial polygamy-themed series.

It was the power of his work in films and television projects, including the screenplay for MTV's Pedro (about the late AIDS activist and Real World: San Francisco cast member), which turned Black into one of the most important voices of his generation. During his speech at the Screenwriter's Showcase, Black recalled a recent visit to his conservative high school in Salinas, where four students came out in front of the entire student body, inspired by the Bruin alum. "These kids are paying attention to our work," Black said. "Our words truly do have power to illuminate, shine the truth, to literally save lives."

Other honorees of the Screenwriters Showcase included feature film winners Barbara Curry (Talk of the Town), Meg Gifford (Paint It Black), Ed Goodman (Limbo Larry vs. Death Et Al), Joseph Hartstone (New Dogs) and Nils Lyew (Lutins), and television winners Ben Taylor (Lifers) and Doc Pedrolie (Boss). UCLA alumnus Mike Werb, screenwriter of films such as The Mask and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, hosted the event.

Black is currently working on bringing Tom Wolfe's novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to the big screen, as well as What's Wrong With Virginia, a film based on his original screenplay that will also mark directorial debut. He also formed an organization with mentor Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in Milk), activist Chad Griffin and producer Bruce Cohen towards marriage equality.