How Dennis Lehane’s Dorchester upbringing inspired the race and class struggles in ‘Live by Night’

Ben Affleck's film adaptation of the novelist's book hits theaters Friday.

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in a scene from 'Live By Night.' –Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment

When author and Dorchester native Dennis Lehane was a kid, his mother gave him a library card. Nearly every day, Lehane would make the trek up Columbia Road from his home near Franklin Park to the Boston Public Library’s Uphams Corner branch in the heart of Dorchester.

It was no small feat for a young child growing up in Boston in the 1970s: In the fall of 1974, when Lehane was nine, the city erupted into violence and riots over the federally mandated school desegregation program. Students from predominantly white neighborhoods, many filled with working-class Irish- and Italian-Americans, were bused to school systems with more than 50 percent nonwhite students, while black students from neighborhoods like Roxbury were sent to predominantly white schools. Much of the national attention centered around violent incidents in South Boston, but Dorchester was also home to some of the 80 Boston Public Schools forced to integrate.


“It was just a very tumultuous time,” said Lehane, whose parents immigrated from Ireland. “The city was so Balkanized back then, but my neighborhood wasn’t.”

Lehane said his neighborhood, near the border of Dorchester and Roxbury, was “as melting pot as you could get,” and influenced all of his future writing.

“Whenever I think about that walk [to the library], I feel like that’s where I came alive from an artistic standpoint,” Lehane said. “Questions about economics, questions about class, questions about race, they dominate my work.”

Dennis Lehane in Charlestown. —David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

They’re certainly at the center of Lehane’s 2012 novel, Live By Night, as well as the film adaptation written by, directed by, and starring Ben Affleck that hits theaters Friday. Set in 1920s Boston during the height of Prohibition, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a Boston Police captain, who turns to a life of crime. In early scenes, Coughlin’s father (Brendan Gleeson) scolds him for taking up with an Irish woman from Dorchester (Sienna Miller) and associating himself with petty Italian criminals. Later in the film, Coughlin heads to Tampa, where he begins dating a woman who is half black and half Cuban. The Ku Klux Klan gets involved.


Though the plotline of Live By Night takes place almost 100 years ago, Lehane said he sees the issues it raises as evergreen.

“The story of America is the story of race, in my opinion,” Lehane said. “When people feel helpless and fearful, they set their sights less on the powers that they can’t touch and more on the things they can reach out and touch, like something as simple as race. It’s human nature. When people are pushed by economic strains, it can reveal something very ugly.”

Ben Affleck, left, and Remo Girone in a scene from ‘Live By Night.’ —Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment

The issues of class and race that Lehane encountered as a child aren’t the author’s only autobiographical tidbits in Live By Night. The younger Coughlin frequently tells friends about his older brother Danny, who moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and keeps telling Joe to relocate, as well.

Lehane also now calls Los Angeles home, and concedes that the reason why is not exactly a secret.

“My ambition is to be a showrunner,” Lehane said. “I’ve come very close three times now. Ultimately, that’s what I love. I love working with writers’ rooms.”

Lehane is currently part of a writing staff for Mr. Mercedes, a limited series adaptation of a Stephen King novel being produced by Belmont native David E. Kelley. Prior to that, he was on the writing staff of the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Wire, and he recently wrote the screenplay for The Drop, a film based on his own short story Animal Rescue.


Despite his love of the Hollywood process, Lehane claims he is “set-allergic.” That’s why, for the first time since Hollywood began adapting his works with 2003’s Mystic River, he didn’t make it to set once during the filming of Live By Night. He still sent Affleck notes on a series of script drafts and early cuts of the film, but said he had little input in shaping the film’s narrative.

“When you’re talking about a novelist, a novelist doesn’t dictate s***,” Lehane said. “A novelist dictates who he sells it to, and that’s what I control, and that’s when I can be very difficult to deal with.”

Ben Affleck in a scene from ‘Live By Night.’ —Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

Lehane said, though, that in the case of Live By Night, not having a say in the script was probably a good thing. When he finished writing the book and allowed himself to envision it as a film, he had two scenes in mind that could be strong centerpieces for a script. Those two scenes didn’t make it beyond early outlines of the plot, and were gone by the time Live By Night reached script stage.

“I have a very limited perspective,” Lehane said. “I’m too close to the material sometimes. It’s a big, sprawling, mess of a book.”

However, Lehane said his next novel, Since We Fell, is much more straightforward plot-wise, so he decided to write the script himself prior to the book’s May 6, 2017 release date. Since We Fell follows the story of Rachel Fields, a journalist who becomes a shut-in after an on-air breakdown, but otherwise enjoys an idyllic life with her husband. It’s idyllic, that is, until a chance encounter leaves her wondering if her husband is leading a double life.

“It has a clean through line; it’s real simple,” Lehane said. “I can adapt things like that. But I don’t think I would have been the guy for Live By Night.”

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