By: Amber Leventry
Screenwriter and LGBTQ activist Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for his film, Milk, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected into public office in California. Black hopes to win over audiences with his newest project When We Rise, an eight hour miniseries that tries to tell the stories of struggle and triumph in the gay rights movement. The docudrama covers four decades of defining moments in the fight for LGBTQ rights, which gained ground following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The ABC series is meant to serve as a history lesson and a unifying force in a country very much divided right now, but forty years is a lot to cover in four two-hour made-for-family television episodes.
Big name actors like Rosie O’Donnell, Guy Pearce, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary-Louise Parker, and Whoopi Goldberg fill the series with credible names as Black uses them to portray the stories of real life activists, Cleve Jones (Pearce), Ken Jones (Williams), and Roma Guy (Parker). We don’t get to see all of the big name actors until the second half of the series though, when Black uses them to take us through Parts 3 and 4 of the show. Parts 1 and 2 showcase lesser known and younger actors to portray Cleve, Ken, and Roma during the ’70s and ’80s.
When We Rise takes us through personal stories and legal battles of the gay rights movement using the three voices of Cleve, Ken, and Roma who have moved to San Francisco for different reasons but end up fighting for similar causes. Cleve Jones is a gay man who leaves his repressive home; Ken Jones is a gay African-American serving in the Navy; and Roma Guy is a feminist who is still discovering her sexuality. These characters, based on real life activists, allow Black to take us through the victimization of LGBTQ individuals, the underground world of the culture, and the pain and fear of losing people we love.
Black has taken on the daunting task of also highlighting a complicated timeline in our history: the fight again Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools; the fight for political office; the AIDS epidemic; drug addiction; homelessness; gay parenting; Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; the Defense of Marriage Act; Proposition 8; the religious divide between the gay and straight communities; and the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. Any one of these topics could easily take up eight hours on its own.
But as LGBTQ individuals and families are feeling under attack with the new administration limiting and removing federal protections, any storyline with these themes which will appeal to mass audiences is a win. Empathy is needed to power resistance, and When We Rise will hopefully contribute to that.
In an interview done by Sandra Gonzalez for CNN, Dustin Lance Black said: “I would give anything in the world for it [the show’s theme] to be less topical in the world right now…I do think it’s a necessary conversation to have right now.”
Our differences must first be recognized and respected before we can see the similarities in each other, before we can truly accept and lift one another up to equal standards. Ideally, When We Rise, will rise above history lessons and take viewers into the lives of the people living through the day to day fights toward freedom and equality. History doesn’t always unite us, but stories of love, sacrifice, and family can.
When We Rise is scheduled to debut Monday, February 27 at 9/8c.
Photo credit: ABC