Written and directed by Dustin Lance Black, the final installment of When We Rise brings things into a more modern context. After San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (Matthew Del Negro) had married thousands of same-sex couples in 2004, only for the California Supreme Court to overturn the decision the same year, marriage equality continued to be one of the biggest topics of conversation in the LGBT community. Then, in 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president, Proposition 8, a California ballot proposition stating that only marriage between a man and a woman could be deemed legal or valid, was also passed. “Millions of dollars of hate” won this round. But the fight rolls on…
Fastforwarding past the 2006 one-on-one interview with Cleve that begin When We Rise, we’re brought into 2008, on a night when history is being made: The first ever African-American president has just been elected. But the seedier side of history is happening, too, as Prop 8 is passed — much to Cleve’s dismay. After Cleve’s complete dismissal of the young man who interviewed him (Douglas Smith) and his entire generation’s failure to make an impact, it looks like now is finally the time to make that impact.
Note: Because this “young man” character is in fact nameless — he’s a proxy for Dustin Lance Black, who interviewed the real Cleve Jones in preparation for Milk — let’s just call him D.L.B.
At a rally in West Hollywood, CA, even before the vote has officially been called, D.L.B. tells his female friend Robin (Pauley Perrette) they need to make their voices heard, and it’s not happening this way: “They put this stage up to keep us quiet in our ghetto. We should be angry. We should be protesting… the straight area. Up to Sunset.” This is just a few minutes into “Part IV,” and boy is it worrying, especially after “Part III” dedicated so much time to teen angst. Because here’s the thing: After eight hours of a miniseries focusing on four specific people, we’re understandably invested in those people. We’re attached to Cleve, Ken, Roma, and Diane at this point, and they can get away with some frustrating behavior because of that. So hearing some random, nameless character call West Hollywood in 2008 a “ghetto” just feels tone deaf on so many levels — especially after four hours of showing San Francisco’s Castro area as more or less an actual ghetto for the gay population. D.L.B. getting fired up by Cleve Jones’ “damn millennials” comments is understandable, but the way he proceeds is as “damn millennial” as he possibly can be. Especially since we’re basically shown that he’s not protesting because of his own feelings but because Cleve insulted him and his whole generation.
Cleve may look at these rallies and protests of Prop 8 and see himself when he was jumping on and blowing up squad cars, but the young Cleve Jones of When We Rise was always his own man. Even when he was driven by his desire to please Harvey Milk, he still had his own ideals that he fought for. So watching D.L.B. get active isn’t empowering; it’s cringeworthy. Actually, watching D.L.B. butt heads with Cleve about how activism is done these days is the worst part of “Part IV,” even if he ends up being right. But remember, D.L.B. is a character created specifically for When We Rise, so this is all a conscious choice. And not a particularly good one.
So D.L.B. and Robin try to get Cleve to work with them as part of this 21st century brand of activism, with social media and trips to Fresno (where they lost Prop 8 “by a mile,” even though there are gay families there). Because, simply put, Cleve Jones would give their action “legitimacy.” But Cleve at this point is a little bit disenfranchised, or at least of the belief that he’s getting too old for this activism. Remember how much Cleve piled on when it came to the suits in Washington? Well while D.L.B. and Robin are talking about a march on Washington, Cleve’s talking about how he has a “much bigger” call to Washington — to advise on a new federal bill to get LGBT protections, a civil rights act. After all, how is this “marriage fight” going to help people who losing their jobs for being LGBT? If anything, it’s clear Cleve is scared to fight back the old-fashioned way, claiming that the “new energy” caused by Prop 8 means they have to play ball and give Congress a chance for once. No one starts a “YOU SOLD OUT” chant, but it’s pretty apparent that’s what they’re thinking, especially when Robin tells Cleve that meeting him was “…informative.” She tells him that this supposedly lazy generation “could crack Washington wide open,” and she’s not going to wait for Congress to make the change: “I want to change Congress.” At least someone has the fire inside them without having to take Cleve’s insults personally.
Cleve thinks on things after this meeting, remembering how younger him was told to cut his hair and get an education in order to “fit” the look of the party… and then he met Harvey Milk. He finds the magical bullhorn bestowed to him upon Milk’s death, and brings it to their “Meet in the Middle” rally in Fresno, along with Gilbert Baker (Jack Plotnick) and a new banner promising to march on Washington. Cleve realizes this generation he’s been looking down on grew up “with Ellen and Will & Grace telling them everything’s fine” — but once they felt the same type of discrimination people before them had, “they’ve reacted with an anger that stems from self-respect.” You can’t really try to stop that, can you? And with that, Cleve speaks at the rally, demanding full equality, for everyone, in all 50 states. “Every compromise, every delay, undermines our humanity.” Cleve goes from wanting nothing to do with these grassroots whippersnappers to making his Palm Springs home their headquarters, reminding them all that even in his age (and sickness), he can “out march” and “out bitch” all of them. Even if he doesn’t know who or what Lady Gaga is. “Never quote me on this, but losing Prop 8 could be the best thing that ever happened, if we pull this off,” he tells them.
And so they head to Washington, D.C., for the National Equality March in October 2009… and no one’s there. As Cleve puts it, “15 minutes until the greatest humiliation of my life,” and ouch, would that sting. But a few moments later, people show up (including Lady Gaga), and things are moving. Because they’re making movement. Five months later (this part has a lot of ground to cover), Cleve’s moving back to San Francisco, fully aware you can’t wage a war from Palm Springs. Because “Part IV” has a little more fun than the others (and because San Francisco’s getting expensive at this point thanks to the tech boom), Cleve is temporarily staying with Roma and Diane. At one point, they all drink Bloody Marys together and tease each other, and it’s just nice to imagine another, lighter series where Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, and Rachel Griffiths (and Michael K. Williams, though he’s not in that scene) are all lifelong friends who love to have fun.
Re-enter Chad Griffin (T.R. Knight), a twitchy little thing but an important man. He worked to fight Prop 8, and with the guilt he felt in losing that fight, he will stop at nothing to fix things — even if that means asking for the help of conservative hotshot attorney Ted Olson (Arliss Howard), the man who represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore. A little birdy told Chad that Ted’s personal beliefs might be less conservative than expected, and they were right, so Chad wants Ted’s help in taking this fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Chad also knows that they’ll need Cleve Jones’ help (because, well, he’s Cleve Jones), though it’s kind of a hard sell, because if they lose it would basically set the LGBT cause back decades. Luckily, they have the red and blue “dream team” on their side in Ted Olson and David Boies (Henry Czerny). Cleve’s still not completely convinced that this will work (“they’ll say it’s too soon, it’s not our time”), but he’s along for the right.
With so much of this being so true to history and recent, there aren’t a lot of surprises the rest of the way for Cleve and When We Rise. Their federal district court case in 2010 in San Francisco is pretty amazing, not just because Richard Schiff plays the judge, but because of the real testimonials from the actual gay couples telling their love stories. Then there’s the amazing recreation of blowhard Dr. David Blankenhorn (Rob Reiner) bombing on the stand in his attempt to be a key witness for the other side, which truly must be seen to be believed. (When We Rise’s take on the Supreme Court case also deserves some praise for its perfect casting of Larry Guli as Antonin Scalia.) Months later, Cleve and company they get the verdict that they’ve won, and then it’s another year to get to the Supreme Court… which comes with another case challenging DOMA. That case is separate (but coincidentally, treated equal), with attorney Roberta Kaplan (Mary McCormack) leading the charge. But at least Obama speaks out in defense of gay marriage, which Cleve couldn’t have imagined hearing from a sitting president at any other time in his life.
He gets another great shock of his life when he witnesses a Supreme Court justice take the typical “think of the children” excuse against same-sex marriages and flips it on its darn head. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. And then they rule: DOMA is unconstitutional, and Prop 8 will be struck down. The rest of When We Rise is pure, unadulterated joy, because really, these people need it. Same-sex couples getting married, happy tears. A win.
“I’d Love to Change the World” plays one more time as a young black girl from a small town watches Cleve speak on CNN. He’s inspiring another generation.
NEXT: Ken Jones
In 2008, Ken is cleaned up and baptized, which should be a good thing, but when you have his church telling him, “You must not go back to your old ways,” you can tell all is not right. Basically, Ken finally made the choice between being black and being gay, even if there’s not really a choice. Elouis (Jayne Taini), the church lady from “Part III,” baptizes Ken and works closely with him. “We are blessed to have a forgiving God,” she tells him. Then why does Ken still so obviously feel broken?
The answer, as it does for many of life’s questions, comes in the form of Phylicia Rashad. Ken sees Yvette Flunder (Rashad) give a sermon to her congregation in the City of Refuge Church, an LGBT-inclusive church that welcomes those affected by HIV/AIDS. It’s a church Ken could have used a long time ago, to be honest. As she delivers her sermon on how we’re all “created in God’s own image” and preaches of love, Ken is clearly moved… but Elouis shows up to tell him this congregation is only here because they rent the space once a week to recover bills. In case you’re wondering how Elouis truly feels about this church, she doubles down on all that awful to Ken: “I hope after they go, you might help us cleanse the chapel. This isn’t disinfectant. Blessed water.” Wouldn’t want to catch the gay, right? Then, Elouis decides that hatred trumps money and kicks out the City of Refuge Church without even pretending to have a good reason. Again, she dumps her bigotry on Ken: “The Lord will provide for us in a more holy manner. It’s fine, Ken.”
But this only makes Ken more interested in the church, and after picking up one of their pamphlets, he heads to their home base. “Welcome home” is how Bobbi Jean Baker (Jazzmun), one of the church’s ministers, greets him, and this is it. This is his calling. It’s also, unsurprisingly, in a bad part of town, and two members of the congregation, Paul (Jeremiah Birkett) and Seville (Alexandra Grey), end up stealing from his car. Since they’re part of the congregation and its meal program, the latter might have to be shut down because of their behavior. (Seville’s backstory is especially heartbreaking, as she’s a trans woman who was put in a men’s prison, found out her partner died from AIDS, then promised to find salvation… only for it not to happen. At least not yet.) And it’s not like the church has the funds anyway. Ken sees that this is his “test” (Bobbi lets him know God has given their church “100 new tests every day”), and he knows what he must do.
First, he goes to Cecilia, who’s a big-time hotshot at the Human Rights Commission now, and after all these years, he finally asks her for help. The two of them go to Roma for help, and these two scenes aren’t just extremely fun and earned — there’s a light in Ken’s eyes that had long been gone. “There’s been so much bad done in the name of God,” Ken tells Roma. “I can assure you, this is not that God.” Then it leads to Cecilia providing the lightest form of blackmail ever, tugging on Roma’s heartstrings because she wouldn’t want to look bad if it got out she let “a black, HIV positive, trans-inclusive church” close because she didn’t have a few more numbers. They get Roma to take it to the Health Commission for a vote to fund the church, and they win. Ken wins. For once. And he now believes “there truly is a God for us.”
Then, because When We Rise is ABC television programming, poor Bobbi immediately gets into a car accident and dies. Bobbi’s family comes into town for the funeral, and there’s pushback from them about her gender. But this time around, even with memories of being told that “there is no gay in a real black man,” Ken’s not lying down. He even goes to Elouis, explains to her how he found a home for his heart and soul at the church, and asks her to help with the funeral for Bobbi, since her family would trust Elouis. He wants their churches to work together, and that’s what happens. And now it’s time for the church to go to Washington to be there for the Supreme Court decision.
With thousands in Washington waiting for the decision and Yvette speaking, Ken runs into Cleve for the first time in ages. “We made it,” Cleve says, which honestly has more meaning than just the one. They’re just both so happy. But Ken has one more person he needs to reconnect with: Michael. Going to the memorial for fallen soldiers, Ken finally says goodbye to his first love, telling him all the things he missed out on but also telling him about all the people who finally stood up. And to make the tears flow even more, he tells Michael that if he sees Richard, “Tell him I miss him, too.” Jonathan Majors, Michael Kenneth Williams — both you men sure know how to break our hearts.
Then everything goes right at the Supreme Court, and Ken becomes a minister at the church as people sing “Oh Happy Day.” So yeah, it’s time to cry again. With this new purpose finally fulfilled, he ends up marrying gay couples, just like he saw a minister marry a straight couple before, with Elouis showing her support. Oh happy day, indeed.
NEXT: Roma & Diane
Roma Guy & Diane Jones
Good thing none of this marriage stuff affects Roma and Diane, right? (The answer might surprise you.)
2008 sees Roma and Diane becoming grandmothers to Annie (Phoebe Neidhart) and her boyfriend Jandro’s (Juan Riedinger) daughter Justice. It makes the teenage rebellion phase just a little bit harder to take, by the way, because adult Annie is downright pleasant. (Unlike the nurse, who won’t let Roma go see Annie give birth until she gets permission, because she’s not family.) Roma still hasn’t stopped being Roma, so she sits away from everyone after the birth — until Annie calls over “Grandma Roma,” that is.
While at the E.R., Diane and Roma run into Victor (Luis Jose Lopez), one of their neighbors and the husband to a cancer-riddled wife who keeps having to go in but never gets any better. Victor’s job has no insurance, his wife is too sick, and he’s tired of the rich coming into the hospital and getting better while the poor just get sicker. He then brings up an argument that comes up quite a few times and is kind of upsetting, given that we’ve now seen how untrue it is: “If she had AIDS, you would help her, right? Here, the rich live, the gays live, and we die.” When We Rise probably wants the audience to feel uncomfortable any time someone says the gays have it easy, and it’s definitely doing a good job about it. (Just to get through Victor’s side of things, when his wife dies, he also says Roma has no idea what it’s like to have a real family, so even though he comes around at the end, he still has some harsh things to say. And they’re not even from a place of absolute hate like Elouis.)
“Commissioner Guy” (feel the power rushing through Roma with that one) fights on Victor’s behalf at the health commission, and so begins the debate of universal healthcare. She hears the usual talk of preexisting conditions and “footing the bill,” as Diane also speaks on behalf of San Francisco General’s E.R., pointing out how they patch people up in E.R. but don’t and can’t do anything about their overall health, “so they’re right back again every month.” As for footing the bill, Roma expands on how, since they’re already paying “for that revolving door” anyway, they should use the wasted money on proper healthcare for all San Franciscans, regardless of their gender or their race or their income: “Why not get ‘em healthy?” Oh yes, some snarky Roma Guy is here. Dr. Mitchell Katz (Alex Reznik) mentions that he petitioned for city-wide healthcare before Roma even had the position, but it’s just not a “political reality” right now. But he also mentions it’s not a reality because of the whole marriage equality thing, which causes Roma to make the best “oh really” face. Then Katz tries to move things along, but since he’s just poked the bear, that doesn’t work. At all. Roma’s doing this, even if she has to go over his head.
At the same time, Annie and Jando ask to move back in with Roma and Diane, as finishing college, trying to teach, raising a baby, and trying to pay a jacked-up rent are pretty impossible without help. Plus, they want to raise Justice near Annie’s moms (aww), and they can always live in the downstairs apartment. In all of Cleve’s talk about “your generation,” he never got around to mentioned 20-somethings moving in with their parents, but this plot has that. Roma makes a joke about them all getting along so well since Annie moved out (and Annie replies with her own “oh really” face that she clearly learned from Roma), but Roma changes her tune after she gets a little good news from Katz: If she can find a winning path, she’ll have the support of the entire commission for this healthcare case. They’ll need the help of the supervisors, so Tom will have to be on board, and while they’re at it, Annie and Jandro can move in. Anything for family, right?
Tom tells Roma they’ll need union support for this, which is where Cleve (crashing on their sofa bed) comes in, as he still has some union pals from his campaigning days. It pays to make important friends, kids. “I thought I’d lost all the boys I loved in this city,” Roma tells Cleve. It’s sweet that they’re able to reconnect, but you’ve got to think she’s also talking about Ken, who hadn’t been as lucky at this point. If that’s not sweet enough for you, Annie then brings in Justice to walk for Grandma Roma, and wait, what was the plot of any of this again? Adorable babies and great actors? No? All right.
The union dinner isn’t a slam dunk, but eventually, Roma is able to convince them that universal healthcare is worth it. Of course the argument is that the term “universal healthcare” is “divisive,” so Roma suggests they look at it more like a home; she’s worked her whole life to create safe homes for women and then the gay community, so now it’s time for “a medical home for every single San Franciscan.” That does the trick. “One struggle. One fight.” And now for one more baby, as Annie’s pregnant again… and she and Jandro are getting married. They announce this right after Roma does one of her regular “marriage was constructed to subjugate women” speeches, but Annie explains that “words have meaning” — not just because she doesn’t want to refer to Jandro as her “baby daddy” but because of how things were when she was growing up: “I never called you mom, so we always had to explain everything. But now you’re grandma and everyone gets it.” (And then Cleve chimes in with a sassy, “Words have meaning, Roma” of his own because this is the Bloody Mary scene, by the way.)
Roma then gets Mayor Newsom to meet a bunch of women at the women’s building who couldn’t get medical help — including one woman who had depression and couldn’t get the help she needed until she intentionally got HIV. Yeah, so that does the trick, and the Mayor signs the healthcare ordinance. It’s too late for Victor’s wife, though, leading him to go off to Roma about “people like you.” So although Roma wins, it’s another instance of her not taking a win like a win. As she tells Katz, “This is just how I am when we win. You should’ve seen me when we won Prop 6.” This bleeds into her home life, and Roma is in such a crisis Diane fears she doesn’t love her anymore. Thankfully, Annie gets it: “I think you need to propose to her, mom.” So Diane does, sort of, because it would be the “politically correct thing to do.” The proposal?
Yep, that’s it. Roma even tells Ken and Cecilia the wedding is just “a political thing,” but come on. Pair of dorks. And if that were the case, Roma probably wouldn’t have called her sister to tell her the news and invite her to the wedding (“depending on what the courts say,” of course). The fate of marriage equality is up in the air, and even toddler Justice can see that Roma is all messed up about it, so she gives her grandma a hug. “Thank you,” Roma replies. Because Roma is the best.
And as we know, they win the case, so it’s off to get married (and “get a damn dress”). While Ken is marrying other gay couples, Tom marries Roma and Diane, and everyone is just. So. Happy. Annie admits she was only able to find love because of her moms’ example, and now they’re “spouses for life.” Now for one last group hug from the “us”-es.
“In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court declared bans on same sex marriage unconstitutional in all 50 states. But today, violence against LGBT people as well as radical, religious, and ethnic minorities is on the rise across the United States. One struggle. One fight.”