'When We Rise' Hammers Home the 'We' of the LGBTQ Community

The series, premiering Monday on ABC, undoes Hollywood missteps when it comes to LGBTQ stories while providing a blueprint for progress.
February 25, 2017, 2:17am
A still from When We Rise. Image courtesy ABC

This Monday, Dustin Lance Black's highly anticipated miniseries, When We Rise, premieres on ABC. It follows the intersected lives of three LGBTQ activists—Cleve Jones (founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and mentee of Harvey Milk), Roma Guy (a women's rights and public health activist), and Ken Jones (a black community organizer who struggles with his race, religious upbringing, and military background)—from 1972 to near-present day.


It's a massive undertaking, eight hours of television in all, that joins a canon of recent media projects seeking to enshrine stories from the gay rights movement. Black's thoughtful approach, however—from where it airs to how it hits key notes—represents something new and different.

Black wrote Milk, the 2008 biopic of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the most influential LGBTQ activists in American history. His screenplay won an Oscar and elevated him to new prominence within the industry; after receiving post-Milk offers to write something epic for premium and cable networks (with more time and money), he elected to work with ABC—a television network long known for its family-friendly programming. Placing the series on the network was a deliberate move to reach an America less likely to already know the stories he adapts; "it would've been preaching to the choir" to place it with a premium cable channel, as Black said at a press screening of the first episode in New York this week.

It's a savvy strategy to break through in the age of Facebook bubbles and fake news, and a counter to some notable recent LGBTQ media offerings that have been too limited (and liberal) in their release. The Normal Heart featured out actors B.D. Wong, Jonathan Groff, Matt Bomer and more, but it aired on HBO, a premium network not known for its middle American reach. Tangerine, an indie project that cast trans performers as its trans main characters, was a breakout success after grossing seven times its $100,000 budget—but $700,000 is still a drop in the box office bucket. And this year's Moonlight has been nominated for eight Oscars, but its widest release was 1,104 theaters, compared to La La Land's 3,236. In a way, Black's series is a doubling down on ABC's other recent LGBTQ series win—The Real O'Neals, a sitcom which places out actor Noah Galvin as the gay son of a catholic Chicago family. If viewers can swallow that, perhaps they'll be ready for a dose of real history.


If they are, what they'll encounter is a cast studded with faces both familiar and not, who elevate the stories they tell to occasionally resounding heights. The passion and authenticity of the series' secondary actors often overshadows its main characters and biggest stars (Guy Pearce, Mary Louise Parker, and Michael K. Williams). To see Whoopi Goldberg—someone who saw the gay rights movement evolve firsthand—play Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Health Department, is a joy. Actors early in their careers, like trans actresses Alexandra Grey as Seville and Ivory Aquino as Cecila Chung, light up the screen.

The series is most powerful in its first half, when the barriers to equality and efforts to dismantle them portrayed are more unknown, such as the fight against Prop 6 (a 1978 measure that would have prevented LGBTQ people and allies from working in schools in California). These episodes are also darker, as the shift from early wins is juxtaposed with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Shots of San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s and AIDS-induced panic feel distant but also familiar, and lend the first half of the series an urgency that feels eerie and nascent. There are memorable cameos from queer performers; the first episode, directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed Milk), features actors like Rosie O'Donnell (playing Del Martin, co-founder of the first lesbian organization in the country) and David Hyde Pierce (Cleve Jones' father), and even showcases Charlie Carver—a popular out actor among the Instagram generation. What results is eight hours of TV that feel authentic, even when subplots or dialogue, as often happens in limited series, seem like plot devices


Spanning almost half a century, When We Rise is most successful in reinforcing its central theme—that progress requires unity. The "we" in the series title is emphasized in several pivotal monologues, used not only to reinforce the connection between every corner of the LGBTQ community, but between minorities and majorities, political insiders and outsiders, activists and allies. From early tensions between gay men and lesbians to parallels between the fight for universal healthcare (and its impact on undocumented immigrants) and marriage equality, each story ladders up to a history lesson that means something. The series is emotional, but it's also actionable, in the sense that the narrative provides a blueprint for progress.

And it's impossible to watch this series without contextualizing it within our present cultural and political landscape. In fact, in the middle of its New York screening, news broke that President Trump had lifted federal protections for transgender student bathroom use—another sign that the next four years portend assaults on less privileged subsets of the LGBTQ community, and that we must heed that call for unity more than ever.

Trump's Congressional address will be broadcast this Tuesday, disrupting ABC's original plan to air the four part series consecutively, Monday through Thursday. Black, frustrated but reassured in his decision to sign with ABC, said the network will aggressively promote it during the address. Should Tuesday's promos draw a contingent of Trump supporters, that itself will mean it is a resounding success.

At times, When We Rise feels too much like an adaptation of a textbook, in that it sometimes seems like it's trying to cover too much history. But one can't help feeling like those who made it would wear that like a badge. In our age of alternative facts, real stories about real people who have been directly impacted by discrimination and marginalization are more vital than ever. Different kinds of stories will resonate with different viewers, but for those who watch, any erosion of LGBTQ rights to come over the next few years will be met with the recognition that it was once worse—and that only by embracing myriad meanings of the word "we" did it ever get better.

Follow Khalid El Khatib on Twitter.