A Lion for Our Times: Dustin Lance Black On Lion’s Timely Roar

by Guest Contributors

Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of the Harvey Milk biopic, Milk, writes about the range of emotions he felt while watching the new film Lion, and the message he took from it as a gay man.

Post submitted by Dustin Lance Black. This post originally appeared on Deadline.com.

 I write this in gratitude.

I hadn’t been to an Academy screening since I landed in London nearly three years ago, so the invite to see Lion here was a welcome one.  For once, my athlete fiancé didn’t have an early morning practice the next day, so we buttoned up our coats and headed to the cinema.  Wintertime bliss! 

I tear up over greeting cards, but my partner’s skin is thick, so halfway through the film I worried the sniffing sound beside me meant he was coming down with a cold just before our families were due to arrive for Christmas.  Concerned, I turned my head just enough to bring him into my periphery, and I saw it: a tear streak down his cheek. 

Soon, audible emotion filled the cinema, but these weren’t solely the sounds of sorrow, they were tears of joy and hope, because in its specificity this film struck a universal chord -- and without preaching, it had crafted an effective, global rebuttal to 2016’s deafening voices of fear and division. 

Lion’s true story is a simple one: a young boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) from a small town in India is separated from the family he loves.  He struggles to survive on the streets before being placed in an overcrowded home for lost children.  He’s eventually put on a plane to Australia where he meets his new adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman & David Wenham), and over the next twenty-five years we watch the damage that is done as a grown up Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with which pieces of his identity he feels he must cut away in order to blend in to his new surroundings, and eventually, which parts of his being he simply cannot live without.

Simple? Yes. But a deeper look into this film’s DNA reveals two key elements artists and activists alike must utilise as we endeavor to stop the pendulum of progress from swinging too far back in these regressive times.  One: a more global world isn’t about losing one’s identity; it is about recognising the value of difference.  Two: emotion is our sword.

I know well that when a creative team adapts a “true story” into film, tough choices must be made where they will shine their light.  These filmmakers aimed their cameras with precision for this moment in our world’s history.  When Saroo lands in Australia, and struggles with the culture he finds in this new home, the filmmakers focus on all that is lost when Saroo begins discarding his roots in order to assimilate.

By triangulating Saroo’s relationships with his loving new Australian family and the family he is eventually drawn to find again in India, the filmmakers break down the false notion that in order for a man to call a new land his home, he must give up who he has been.  This film demonstrates with clarity that such a conformist falsehood not only harms Saroo, but injures every relationship around him as well as his loving new Australian family. 

It is only once Saroo embraces his roots, his difference, and brings his homes together in mutual admiration that he and both of his families become whole.  And thanks to the filmmakers’ wisdom, we not only see this moment dramatised, they render their conclusion unassailable by sharing documentary footage of this moment of reunion, recognition and mutual respect between these different families.

At this point in the screening, my partner’s hand was trembling, and I was a snotty mess. That brings me to my second point: the sword of our time is emotion.

Over the past decade I’ve split my time between film, political work, and public speaking. When friends ask how I manage this juggling act I tell them it’s all one and the same to me. When they lift a brow, I remind them I grew up in a Texan, Mormon, military home. 

By eight years old I knew I could preach until my sweat went cold about poll numbers, science, or law, and I wouldn’t change a single mind. My hometown taught me that if you want to change minds, you’d best start with hearts. So whether it’s a cinema, a lecture hall, a dinner table or a courtroom, the quickest path to the heart is an emotional story.  By focusing on emotion over facts, law, or science, Lion drew tears from the steeliest among us.  That tear on my fiance’s cheek was a roaring reminder that if you can change a heart, you can change a mind, and if we can change minds with films like this, we have a shot at rescuing this world from its current collective antisocial personality disorder.

Last but not least, part of what makes a film impactful is how it collides with history.  In ways, Milk's collision with anti-gay legislation sweeping the United States helped make it a guide for some activists at the time.  If Lion had come to life six years ago, it may have been lost, but today its lessons of love and acceptance on a global scale make it indispensable.  Lion tells us that in becoming global, our goal is not to become the same, but to hold onto the magnificence of our differences, and that in this brave endeavor, we might find family, love, and perhaps even become truly whole… no matter our place of birth, the color of our skin, or the God we pray to.

It is true that this film alone won’t be enough to turn the tides, but it is also true that what this film gets right makes it a lion for our times… and for that I am grateful.