Dustin Lance Black's mini-series about the gay rights movement resonates without trying too hard, writes EW critic Jeff Jensen

By Jeff Jensen
February 21, 2017 at 05:46 PM EST
Eike Schroter/ABC
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When We Rise is a beautifully queer thing in a very square package. It’s a mini-series, but not one of those newfangled cable anthologies like American Horror Story and Fargo or short-form crime yarns like The Night Of and Big Little Lies. It’s a broadcast network opus in the mold of Roots or The Winds of War, a star-spangled saga about a high-drama passage of American history that aspires to be a big-tent pop event, produced with a stodgy grandeur that once defined “prestige” on TV. There’s something meaningful in this. When We Rise — led by a cast that includes Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael K. Williams, and Rachel Griffiths — chronicles the modern era of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the U.S. That such subject matter should get expressed in such an old-fashioned TV form in 2017 speaks to how far the LGBT community has come in terms of acceptance, and how infuriatingly slow America has been in giving them representation and justice. When We Rise looks and feels like it could have been made 15 years ago (if not longer), and should have been.

Still, I was moved by the show and learned a lot from it. It’s a story that needs to be told and needs to be heard here at a time when the new conservative administration threatens to roll back the gains of too many years and too much suffering. (In a weirdly fitting and perhaps calculated scheduling choice, the four-night, eight-hour series, which premieres Monday, will be interrupted by President Donald Trump’s speech addressing Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 28.)

Created by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, When We Rise is set mostly in San Francisco and churns 40 years of turbulent history through the lives of four characters, each played by two actors. Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie and Pearce), an icon of gay activism and creator of The Names Project (a.k.a. the AIDS Quilt), provides the narrative center (When We Rise is partially based on Jones’ 2016 memoir of the same title). The other principals are Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs and Parker) and her wife, Diane (Fiona Dourif and Griffiths), co-founders of the Women’s Building, a pioneering community center; and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Williams), a black Navy vet whose arc grapples with themes of racial, sexual, and religious identity. We watch them become politically activated in the ’70s in the years of Harvey Milk, survive the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s in the reign of Reagan, try to build families and forge alliances with the Clinton administration in the ’90s, and campaign for marriage equality in the new century, all at a great personal cost, and with an increasing degree of existential terror due to sickness and despair.

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Familiar faces pop up in small parts. Their presence is never distracting and always additive. Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, and Denis O’Hare show up early, while Henry Czerny, William Sadler, Mary McCormack, and T.R. Knight are among many who show up late. Rob Reiner has a hilarious, single-scene cameo in the last act, while David Hyde Pierce appears throughout as Cleve’s father, a psychiatrist who believes homosexuality to be a mental illness.

When We Rise skips an obvious starting point: the Stonewall riots of 1969. Doing so might have framed the LGBT movement as a kind of glorious revolution, and Black’s story is anything but that. It’s a portrait of difficult, incremental change and fragile wins that come at scarring prices. The story begins global and gets local: We meet Cleve, Roma, and Ken in the early ’70s in different places in the world — Arizona, Africa, Vietnam — and we see how they make their way to the counter-culture refuge of San Francisco, like immigrants seeking new life in a fabled land of opportunity. They hope to find community and acceptance, a culture where they can be open and free. The 1971 year-in-review issue of Life that includes the words “GAY LIBERATION” in all-caps red letters calls to them, suggesting a new normal, at least in some cities. Director Gus Van Sant, who helms the first two hours, uses the magazine as a recurring motif (it’s a symbol for the show itself, speaking to the importance of mainstream representation), but he hitches it to a song that foreshadows the hard times to come: “I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years After, a moody, bluesy requiem for of ’60s idealism. And indeed, when Cleve and co. arrive in the Bay Area, they find paradise lost, a place where counter-culture romance has given way to disillusionment, where liberal, progressive culture has taken a sharp to the right and backwards.

When We Rise depicts the gay rights movement as alienated from other, related movements like black civil rights and women’s liberation (and, conversely, depicts the gay community as not without strains of racism and sexism). The mini-series also presents gay men and women as distinct cultures that pursued similar or kindred goals on parallel tracks, with a suspicious regard for each other. A pivotal early moment finds Team Cleve and Team Roma realizing they might accomplish more when they march together, a feel-good triumph that’s immediately tempered and scattered by the harsh reality of institutional order and indifference in the form of brutal cops, tear gas, and batons — a baptism of blood and bruises for DIY future-builders. The rallying cry of “Same Struggle, Same Fight” and unity under a rainbow flag (the origins of which are dramatized here) were things to be achieved through blood, sweat, and tears, just like everything else. Black’s script is smart about intersectional conflict and the relationship between the personal and political. Roma’s fitful embrace of sexual orientation has implications for her activism. Ditto Cleve’s hedonistic sex life in the age of AIDS. When We Rise twins a portrait of a movement gaining identity and maturity with stories of individuals growing in identity and maturity, and does so with increasing complexity as everyday gay life evolves, and as the organization of the movement grows in political clout and funding and splinters anew.

When We Rise is alternately sentimental and tough, deep and superficial. Those deeply versed with the history — and have seen it dramatized in others forms and in different styles, like HBO’s adaptations of And The Band Played (1993), Angels in America (2003), and The Normal Heart (2014) — won’t be nearly as impressed as those for whom this is new. Most everyone in the cast is excellent, with McKenzie, Skeggs, Dourif, and Majors deserving special commendation for hooking you and giving When We Rise a powerful launch. The first half is better on the whole than the second half. The transition between the younger actors and older actors is awkward — the characters seem to come more easily and naturally from the former than the latter – but the final act picks up steam as it tackles marriage equality. Quality performances and tender direction save When We Rise from perhaps its most glaring executional weakness, explain-y dialogue that’s beholden to teaching history and expressing policy debates. It’s often indistinguishable from the intrusions of narration that push the story forward and fill in the blanks.The mini-series might be eight hours, but it’s ultimately a greatest hits tour of history, riffing long on some parts, resorting to medley on others, flicking at unfinished work still in process. And yet, there are an abundance of moments that capture the angst, pain, and terror of being gay in an oppressive society, where the threat of a violent beat-down by a terrorist bigot lurks around every corner, where the most you could get in terms of protections and reforms from your government is the pseudo-inclusiveness of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” or token acknowledgments from a conflicted president. Every moment with Cleve and his father — who’d rather electroshock his son into “normalcy” than reconstruct his own attitudes and nurture his boy’s blooming individuality — is a heartbreaker, while the Roma-Diane relationship grows more poignant as they struggle to make and grow into a family with a confused, angry daughter, and as they simply persevere over time.

The mini-series might be eight hours, but it’s ultimately a greatest hits tour of history, riffing long on some parts, resorting to medley on others, flicking at unfinished work still in process. And yet, there are an abundance of moments that capture the angst, pain, and terror of being gay in an oppressive society, where the threat of a violent beat-down by a terrorist bigot lurks around every corner, where the most you could get in terms of protections and reforms from your government is the pseudo-inclusiveness of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” or token acknowledgments from a conflicted president. Every moment with Cleve and his father — who’d rather electroshock his son into “normalcy” than reconstruct his own attitudes and nurture his boy’s blooming individuality — is a heartbreaker, while the Roma-Diane relationship grows more poignant as they struggle to make and grow into a family with a confused, angry daughter, and as they simply persevere over time.

Ken’s arc takes him away from the main narrative, especially in the latter half, a source of frustration. Still, his story delivers one searing, staggering scene after another. I was especially moved by the attention given to his spirituality and a predicament that sews chaos in him for years: Here is a man of faith, who desperately needs God to help him make sense of the tragedies and horrors of Vietnam, but can’t seek the solace from his religion because its ministers only have judgment for him, not hope, not love, not grace. This theme fades in the middle section, but comes back strong in the last act, as Ken reconciles his sexuality with a new paradigm of faith with like-minded believers.

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When We Rise resonates without trying too hard, from destructive conflicts between allies over correct ideology, to the necessity of brave, incessant protest. But When We Rise isn’t dependent on relevancy to all things Trump for its urgency. It’s a story of a marginalized people who deserve to be recognized, a history we all need to know and own, presented as potent mainstream television. At one point, a neglectful president flies above and over an exhibit of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in what plays as a willful spurning and taunt, and Pearce’s Cleve leads the crowd in a rebuke: “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Some people, including yours truly, can barely begin to understand and feel everything encoded in that furious shout. When We Rise illuminates, moves us to empathy, and challenges us to join the battle. B+

When We Rise premieres Monday, Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

Editor’s Note: The print edition of EW gave When We Rise an A- based on the first four hours that were available to press at the time. This expanded review is based on viewing all eight hours.

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