April 14, 2024

News Release: February 03, 2009

Milk Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black Earns WGAW’s 2009 Paul Selvin Award

2009 Award Recipient

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has been named the recipient of the Writers Guild of America West’s 2009 Paul Selvin Award, recognizing written work that embodies the spirit of constitutional rights and civil liberties, for his inspiring screenplay for biopic Milk chronicling the life and times of slain gay activist and political leader Harvey Milk. Black will be feted along with other honorees at the 2009 Writers Guild Awards’ West Coast ceremony on Saturday, February 7, 2009 in Los Angeles.


“At a time when history seems to be made daily, Lance Black's script reminds us that all it takes is a single spark to light the fuse of an entire movement,” remarked WGAW President Patric M. Verrone.

Written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Gus Van Sant, Milk charts the private and public journey of Harvey Milk, a business owner turned political activist who was transformed from an ordinary man to extraordinary civil rights icon and enduring symbol of the nation’s gay rights movement. Black’s finely detailed screenplay captures both the macro and micro of the colorful ‘70s decade, balancing the heart of Milk’s own close relationships with the progressive zeitgeist of that specific place and era.

Bookending the film, Black employs a framing device -- depicting a then-48-year-old Milk (played by Sean Penn) soberly reflecting into a tape recorder on an unlikely path that began eight years earlier at the pivotal age of 40 -- to illustrate the life-changing difference one man can make in the world. Trekking from New York to San Francisco in the early ‘70s, Milk truly found himself once he moved out West, setting up a tiny camera shop that soon became a bustling hub in the Castro District, and quickly emerging as vocal community force in the city’s burgeoning gay scene, organizing his fellow neighbors against chronic abuse by local homophobic police and raising his own political profile in the process.

Discovering both an intense personal drive and natural-born talent as a political leader, Milk urged friends, co-workers, and colleagues alike to come out of the closet to combat the anti-gay movement. Armed with his trademark rallying cry to “never blend in,” Black’s screenplay provides an insider’s glimpse of exactly how Milk spearheaded successful campaigns against homophobic opponents like evangelical crusader Anita Bryant and defeated California’s notorious Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gay men and women from public school teaching jobs. While Milk ran for public office multiple times, after several narrowly unsuccessful attempts, the third time was the charm: Milk was finally elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, making him the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office.

Yet such ground-breaking momentum was tragically short-lived, as just one year later in 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were both assassinated by their own colleague: resigned former City Supervisor Dan White. While both an engrossing, deftly made political biopic and a painstakingly accurate historical narrative, Milk’s subject matter and political legacy still resonates with audiences today: the film climaxes with real-life footage of San Francisco’s massive candlelit citywide march held in honor of the slain Milk and Moscone, illustrating how topical Milk remains, timely echoing California’s recent passage of ant-gay marriage Proposition 8 and its subsequent nationwide gay rights protests.

While the galvanizing true-story of Harvey Milk has inspired many projects over the years, from the late Randy Shilt’s 1982 biography The Mayor of Castro Street, which in turn led to 1984’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, Black’s original script was largely based on his own exhaustive research and culled from personal commentaries from many of Milk’s close friends and colleagues, including Cleve Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch), who acted as the film’s historical consultant to help ensure accuracy in bringing Milk’s story to the big screen.

Released by Focus Features, the same studio that made the groundbreaking gay romance Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Milk has already received a clutch of awards season accolades: a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award (Best Actor, Sean Penn), a National Board of Review Award (Best Supporting Actor, Josh Brolin), a trio of New York Film Critics Circle Awards (Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actor), and the PGA’s Stanley Kramer Award, as well as earning multiple Academy Award, WGA, SAG, DGA, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Independent Spirit Award nominations. In addition, Black recently received the “Hollywood Breakthrough Award” for Screenwriter of the Year at the Hollywood Film Festival.

Born after the year Milk was assassinated, Black -- an executive producer on the film -- has long been drawn to Milk’s personal story and political journey. An honors graduate of UCLA’s School of Film and Television, Black began his professional career as an art director before making the transition to directing documentaries, television series, commercials, and music videos. The early success of documentaries On the Bus and My Life with Count Dracula led to a stint producing and directing the hit BBC series Faking It, which aired on TLC in the U.S. In 2001, Black’s short film Something Close to Heaven was named one of the ten best shorts of that year, landing Black in AMC’s “Five Filmmakers to Watch” special.

Black was raised in a devout Mormon household in Texas, putting his own experiences to creative use as both a writer and executive story editor on HBO’s Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated polygamist drama series Big Love. Next up, screenwriter Black is set to once again join forces with director Van Sant, adapting Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test into a long-awaited feature film version. He has also begun pre-production on his feature directorial debut, What’s Wrong with Virginia, starring Jennifer Connelly. His other writing credits include Pedro (screenplay by Black, story by Paris Barclay & Black), the true-story HIV-positive MTV Real World star Pedro Zamora, A Life Like Mine, and The Journey of Jared Price, which Black wrote and directed.

The Paul Selvin Award is given to that WGA member whose script best embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and liberties, which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere, and to whose defense the late Selvin, who served as counsel to the Guild for 25 years, committed professional life. Previous recipients include Allison Cross, Gary Ross, Cynthia Whitcomb, David E. Kelley, Eric Roth, Michael Mann, Jason Horwitch, Don Payne, and most recently, Robert Eisele & Jeffrey Porro.