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Black, Dustin Lance (b. 1974)  
 
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The success of the film depends a great deal on the mesmerizing performance of Penn, who thoroughly inhabits the character of Milk, but it also owes much to the strength of Black's screenplay, which reflects his extensive research into Milk's life and into San Francisco politics during a time of momentous change. He places Milk within the context of the heady and tumultuous gay liberation years and he presents him as a heroic, but altogether human individual, with a messy personal life. The film is a biography of a courageous and visionary politician, not of a saint. Black's Milk is a man who grows to fill a role demanded by the extraordinary times in which he lived.

In the film, Milk's romantic relationships are intricately intertwined with his politics. As Black has explained, for glbtq people the personal is necessarily political. "Harvey was personally connected to why he was doing what he did. It wasn't just about rights or electoral politics, it was about the fact that he was in love with Scott Smith or Jack Lira--and he wanted that to be OK. He wanted to have the right to be himself."

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Deftly directed by Van Sant, the film earned a number of Academy Award nominations, including ones for Best Picture, Best Director (Van Sant), Best Actor (Penn), Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), and Best Original Screenplay (Black).

Indeed, Black's screenplay earned him a number of honors: a Film Independent Spirit award for best first screenplay, an American Film Institute Award, and two awards from the Writers Guild of America, one for best original screenplay and the guild's Paul Selwin Civil Rights Award for "the member whose script best embodies the spirit of constitutional and civil rights and liberties."

But the honor that brought Black the most attention was the Academy Award that he received for best original screenplay. In accepting the coveted award, he gave one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy Awards, using the occasion to spread the message of activism and acceptance that Harvey Milk himself embodied.

Speaking just months after California voters had approved Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages and sparked deep anger and resentment among gay men and lesbians across the country, Black at once reassured young people and enunciated a powerful vision of equality.

After thanking his colleagues in making "this life-saving story," Black recalled that "When I was thirteen years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved us from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas to California and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope that I could live my life, it gave me the hope to one day live my life openly as who I am and that maybe one day I could even fall in love and get married."

After pausing to collect himself, he continued, "I want to thank my mom who has always loved me for who I am, even when there was pressure not to."

He concluded by articulating the great message of Harvey Milk himself: "But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours. Thank you, thank you, and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk."

Black's eloquent message of hope was heard not only by the millions of people watching the Academy Awards, but reached millions more through its dissemination via newscasts, youtube videos, and blogs. It instantly gave him credibility as a gay activist and spokesperson for the glbtq community.

Black has used this credibility well, taking many opportunities to speak out on gay issues and appear on high profile talk shows such as Oprah and NPR's Fresh Air, as well as at high schools and other venues to win support for gay rights. He and Cleve Jones have jointly advocated for a change in strategy by the glbtq political movement, advising a turn away from the current state-by-state approach to winning same-sex marriage to a strategy that focuses more broadly on a whole panoply of rights on the federal level.

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