Adapted from Oscar-winning writer and filmmaker Dustin Lance Black’s bestselling 2019 memoir, director Laurent Bouzereau’s deeply moving and unexpectedly urgent feature documentary Mama’s Boy debuts on HBO and HBO Max tonight, Tuesday, October 18th 2022. Traveling back to the places where he grew up with two brothers, Black explores his Southern conservative Mormon childhood roots, gay identity and close relationship with his late mother, Rosanne “Anne” Bisch, who became the inspiration for Black’s activism. Read our full review of the film, which world premiered as the opening night selection of NewFest’s 34th annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival.
Ahead of tonight’s HBO debut of Mama’s Boy, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Dustin Lance Black and Laurent Bouzereau about bringing Black’s memoir to the screen.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Lance, it’s clear from the film that you’re a captivating storyteller, but when did you realize that you had your own really compelling story to tell and why did you want to share it with the world?
Dustin Lance Black: “At a very early age I realized that I was growing up in an incredibly different way. People always found it curious that these three little boys were being raised Mormon in a very not Mormon area by a woman who couldn’t move from the chest down. I also knew I was a gay kid in a military, Mormon, Southern family, so I was like, well, this a is pretty extreme little story. I wouldn’t know what story to tell in the memoir though until much later. It was when I saw that my mother was right in seeing that the storm clouds were gathering that would visit the nation in terms of this increasing divide between people of different political persuasions. She saw that it was trickling down into families, ours included. She beseeched me to try to keep those bridges standing, and to follow her example, which was always to share space with people that she disagreed with and to ask questions, more than just stating her own beliefs.”
“After she passed away, particularly come 2016 and beyond, it felt like it kept picking up more and more urgency. She was right, sadly. The storm did come and it has been incredibly destructive, not just to families that are built of people of different political persuasions, but certainly that has affected our country. The idea that we can’t be with people who are too different, or that we disagree with, has also shattered the queer community in many ways; separating the L from the G from the B from the T and weakened us as well. Even from 2019 when the book was published, until Laurent said, ‘Hey, let’s make a documentary about it’, I kept thinking, God, it just keeps getting worse. It’s a global problem. It’s affecting our countries, our families, and now even our queer community, and we’ve got to see if we can’t start to be grown up enough and brave enough to share space again.”
The rhetoric seems to get more and more extreme, doesn’t it? One of the reasons that I really responded to the film is that there’s so much talk of division in the country, but there are very few people offering solutions to that. Was that something that you saw in Lance’s book, Laurent?
Laurent Bouzereau: “I responded to it on an emotional level and I saw parts of myself in this story, even though it’s unique to Lance. I feel a debt of gratitude to him for all that he’s done, not only as a storyteller, but on all the fronts that he’s touched. I felt it was almost a mission for me to make this film. I’ve been looking for a story like this, that spoke to me as a gay man, and when I landed on Lance’s story, I couldn’t believe all that he had gone through. I also felt that there was a real cinematic journey to be had here, from this little kitchen to the stage of the Oscars. I thought, there’s no way that people aren’t going to identify with that and be inspired by it, because I know that I was. Shooting the film, over 14 days we scheduled Lance going back to places from his childhood, ending up in LA.”
Lance, did you have any new discoveries when you were making this film. I imagine telling these stories out loud, rather than writing them down was probably quite a different experience. Then also, as Laurent was saying, you actually physically went to some locations that were meaningful to you. We see you and your brother Todd for instance standing by the stream where you played as kids when you were trying to be away from the home.
Lance: “Yeah, you nailed it. When I was writing the book, I was at least in the safety of my home, behind my laptop. As we filmed, Laurent wanted me to go back to the places where it happened and to be with the people who probably weren’t going to see eye to eye with me. The idea was to take my mother’s course, which was to go from a conservative world to a more progressive one, and see if it would work in reverse. I had done some of that before I wrote the book, but now we were doing it in an even more divided, post-2016 time. It sounds all well and good to share space with people who disagree with you, knowing that it has the potential to create progress and build a bridge, but I was surprised by how difficult it was emotionally.”
“It is hard to hear the things people say they don’t agree with and to not just lash out and hate them and run back to the safety of your own corner of the country. I had a breakdown at one point, that was difficult, but thankfully Laurent was there and took really good care of me and we move forward. At the end of the day, I have a closer relationship with my family in Texas now than I did before the documentary, so it proved my mother right. I understand their perspective more now. I’m not going to vote the way that they vote, but I understand a little more of what they think they’re trying to protect, which is similar to what I think I’m trying to protect, which is family at the end of the day. Hopefully we can figure out more ways to not rip each other’s rights away in that process of protecting family. The same held true when we went to the seat of Mormon power in Utah. I realize just how hard what my mother did was and I realized that it’s got harder now than it was even when the book came out. But it’s been made clear to me just how critical this work is and that it can be fruitful. It won’t always be, but it can be fruitful.”
When you say ‘what your mother did’, do you mean that she came from her stance of being taught by the church that you being gay was a terrible sin to accepting you?
Lance: “I’m so grateful that my mom made that change, but I want to make it simpler than that. She showed the courage to share space with people she disagreed with. How wonderful that she changed her mind. I shared space with people both in Utah and Texas, and they did not change my mind, but I figured out that I didn’t have to demonize them or wish for their destruction. That is the change that’s happened. We’ve always had disagreements in this country and in families, always, that’s natural, that’s going to happen. We come from different backgrounds and we’re not always going to understand each other. What’s changed in the temperature of our disagreements is that we now wish for the death and demise of those who disagree with us. When you share space, that temperature comes down and we stop wishing for the death and destruction of the neighbor we disagree with. If we keep going in that direction, I’m telling you, the future does not look bright for this country. So I do love that my mother changed her mind, but I would love for things to get back to a place where we can disagree with one another without wishing our opponent dead. That’s the hope.”
Let’s talk about some of the beautiful photographs and home video that you incorporate in the film. Laurent, how did you go about deciding how to use those materials and on the visual style of the film?
Laurent: One of the first things that Lance told me was that he had a suitcase full of treasures and he certainly delivered on that. Then it was a question of finding a visual style. Watching the film, you may notice that there’s a hint of turquoise throughout most of the family interviews, even some that I added in post, because I wanted to have a link, even subliminally, between all those people. With the photos, we worked really hard with a graphics company on bringing texture to the backgrounds with wood and colours and other elements, because there’s something so raw about the story we wanted to showcase all this material thematically. It was wonderful, albeit heartbreaking, to see the footage of Lance’s mother and brother as I had never had the chance to meet them. All of that brought the story to life for me in a really powerful and visual way.”
There are so many beautiful photographs of your mother when she was younger and that smile on her face as she’s persevering with polio is so striking. It’s also really special see your husband Tom meeting her that Christmas, which is intimate footage to share.
Lance: “We were very lucky. My mother was dirt poor, incredibly poor, so you wonder how did they have all these photograph? My grandmother, Cokie, who I never got to meet, worked in a drugstore so she was able to get film and film processed for almost nothing. She would snap away and just happened to have that job. So even though they could barely afford to feed themselves, they could have these pictures. Thank goodness for that.”
One last question for both of you, it’s for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
Lance: “That’s not fair! I’ll get in so much trouble if I answer that question.”
Laurent: “I’ll say Lance for me.”
Lance: “Oh, stop it!”
Laurent: “It’s true. You gave me my next film and something to tell that I hope will make a difference. So it’s you 100%.”
Was Lance someone you already admired before starting work on Mama’s Boy?
Laurent: “Oh, big time. Lance was a hero for so many reasons and I’m so honoured to have been able to tell his story.”
Lance: “Laurent, I’m grateful. That makes me deeply uncomfortable, but thank you! I hope you’ll say that I can’t answer the question because there are so many and I’m in a position, because of the research I’ve done, to know how many stories are still buried, that I know but the world doesn’t yet know. I know how much work we have to do to excavate the history of our foremothers and forefathers because it’s been buried in fear and shame. So I can’t, because we haven’t even met them all yet. Unlike people who share other histories, even other minorities who share histories that have been better excavated, with ours, we’ve just begun that work. But someone whom I admire regularly, who brings us all joy, but I actually think there should be a sociological study about, is RuPaul. I know it’s RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s good fun, but I’ve got to say that show goes deep if you’re really paying attention. Week after week, and country after country now, there’s a wonderful sense that it’s okay to be as different as you want to be and in fact that it could be, in an ideal world, celebrated. Though these people are competing against one another, for the most part they don’t let it divide them and I wish as a movement we could remember that. We can fight with each other, we can compete with each other, we can not stand each other sometimes because our differences don’t align, but we’ve got to stay united, we’ve got to be a family. I actually think that RuPaul is far more important than we realize right now.”
As part of your work excavating our LGBTQ+ history you’ve written the screenplay for Rustin which will be released on Netflix next year starring Colman Domingo as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Do you hope that people who are less aware of him, perhaps as they might have been with Harvey Milk before Milk, might get to know Rustin through through that film?
Lance: “That’s the hope. I haven’t seen it. I didn’t get to produce it because I was busy doing Under the Banner of Heaven, so I don’t know how it is. I hope it’s great because he is one of my heroes. I worked on that project for over a decade to get it to the screen to share that history. But again, he’s just another little stone in this vast mosaic that we have to rebuild.”
By James Kleinmann
Mama’s Boy, which received its world premiere at NewFest’s 34th New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, debuts on HBO on Tuesday, October 18th at 9pm ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
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