Dustin Lance Black’s memoir Mama’s Boy pulled up emotions I thought I’d long buried. The suffocating, terrifying fear that you live with, born from a mix of homophobia and religion, that infects introverted, creative gay boys. That unique blend of anxiety that comes from feeling that you are already broken and must hide behind a facade of perfection to survive. That no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, you will end up in hell.
Reading Black’s tale (far more dramatic than mine in every way) made me feel claustrophobic. It’s a testament to his writing and the fact that Mama’s Boy reads so well.
Black charts his life from his Mormon childhood, born into poverty, to his Oscar-winning turn writing the film Milk, and his fight for marriage equality without sensationalising the journey or milking it for celebrity gossip. Interactions with the rich and famous are mainly confined to simple, discrete paragraphs and never negative. He even demonstrates a remarkable degree of grace when discussing the Mormon faith. If you’re looking for a primer on how to make it as a screenwriter or for juicy gossip from his West Hollywood days, you’ll be disappointed.
The real star of his story is his mother. By all accounts a woman of remarkable strength and tenacity who overcame physical hardship and abuse to excel in almost every way. Black’s love of his family shines through the book on every page. The photos that mark each chapter feel like a family album being opened up in front of you.
The book’s subtitle is “a story from our Americas” and many “Americas” are evident here. The divide between the conservative South and the liberal Coasts, the believers and unbelievers, those who wanted to take the fight for marriage equality head on and those who opted for slower, subtler approaches. Often these “Americas” clash, and sometimes combine in surprising ways.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that studios wouldn’t take a chance on a “gay movie”, and movie stars, or their managers at least, were nervous about taking on queer roles in case it damaged their careers. The success of the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, written and produced by Black, would change his life as well as build on the success of Brokeback Mountain to show that audiences were attracted to good stories rather than turned off by homosexual ones. It put Harvey Milk’s achievements back in the public eye and taught a timely lesson of queer history as Prop 8 was trying to push LGBTQ+ people back.
One thing is clear from reading Mama’s Boy, Dustin Lance Black is a man of his convictions – whether you like them or not. A man who would put his screenwriting career on hold to take up legal battles and fight for a cause, not just for his own gain.
In the end though Mama’s Boy is only half memoir, the other half is a tribute to his mother. Showing Black is well and truly the product of an amazing, fierce woman – he really is his mother’s son.
By Chad Armstrong
Mama’s Boys is available in paperback now, and as an audio-book narrated by Black.