When We Rise Will Be Your Intersectional Syllabus For The Next 4 Years

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Pictured: Emily Skeggs and Austin McKenzie in "When We Rise."
One wonders if, when Dustin Lance Black sat down to write the screenplay for the miniseries When We Rise, the screenwriter knew just how relevant the piece would be when it premiered. The four-part miniseries, which premiered tonight on ABC, chronicles the rise of the LGBTQ movement, and does so with a sort of slow, instructive poetry that walks us into the present day. A ballad of intersectionality, the series speaks to the slow, insistent churn of any civil rights movement. Yes, history repeats its mistakes, but history also repeats its triumphs. As the episodes tap the various pillars of the gay rights movement, we are reminded that entropy makes freedom somewhat inevitable.
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"The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice," Roma Guy (played first by Emily Skeggs and later by Mary-Louise Parker) says in the first episode. She's quoting Martin Luther King Jr., but she's also laying the groundwork for the series. Roma is one of the three main characters in the series, all of whom are based on very real people. (For that matter, most of the characters in When We Rise are far from fictional. They're part of the series's many-tiered syllabus.)
When we meet her, Roma is a plucky Peace Corps volunteer who's positive that the Equal Rights Amendment will pass. We here in 2017 know the amendment still hasn't passed, but that's one of the strengths of the series — it reminds us that patience and persistence are at least a little effective. Roma may not have pushed the ERA through, but her work towards that goal led to some pretty positive externalities. (A quick Google search will give you a synopsis of the real Roma Guy's accomplishments, but I encourage you to watch them arrive in real time in the series.)
Also on the journey are Cleve Jones (played by Austin McKenzie and Guy Pearce) and Ken Jones (played by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams). Cleve provides the narration — the series begins with the percussive clip of a tape recorder and a sigh from the older Cleve (Guy Pearce).
"Each generation has its own epic confrontation that it must face," he begins,"the Civil Rights movement, the Women's rights movement, Vietnam." When We Rise disputes this allegation as the series develops. Arguably, each generation has several epic confrontations or even just one universal confrontation: division itself.
The action begins in 1972, right when the ERA sailed through congress and into state legislature. A young Cleve Jones (this time Austin P. McKenzie, in a snug pair of jeans and a questionable perm) hands out flyers for a walkout against the Vietnam War. The Life Magazine cover from 1971 that listed "Gay Liberation" as one of the country's imminent uprisings makes a couple of appearances. Ken Jones serves in Vietnam, concealing his relationship with Michael Smith (Charlie Carver). The three present a trio of perspectives on the movement: Roma is optimistic, Cleve is incensed, and Ken wants to keep his head down. (He tells his lover in the first episode that he "escaped" to Vietnam to avoid a vengeful God.) As these three march through the decades between 1972 and 2015, their perspectives change. At times, they choose apathy. At other junctures, they insist on justice. But by the time Part IV rolls around, they've tunneled their way to the same place. The fabric of When We Rise is woven from from their intersections.
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"Intersectionality" is bandied about these days — many would argue it's still not bandied about enough — but it's rare that we see it depicted onscreen the way When We Rise packages it. When it comes to liberation, Hollywood prefers to sell a narrative of unity, not dissent. This narrative tends to leave significant members of the movement on the cutting room floor. (In one egregious error, the recent film Stonewall slapped a heteronormative romantic narrative on the Stonewall riots. Richard Lawson, writing for Vanity Fair, called it "another cartoonish fantasy about white saviors and square-jawed heroes." It was standard Hollywood fare wearing the drapery of gay liberation.) When We Rise is given the time and the cast to explore the term. Ken Jones is both Black and gay, which places him at odds with Cleve Jones, who enjoys the privilege of his skin. Roma is a self-described lesbian who, at first, doesn't want the gay men of San Francisco joining her movement. In an iconic moment from the show's trailer, Roma stands and shouts, "We are not a menace!" This is a reference to Betty Friedan's "lavender menace," which the feminist theorist once used to describe radical lesbians. Feminism: It's complicated.
The series also provides us with characters like Cecilia Chung (played by the trans actress Ivory Acquino) and Sylvester (Justin Sams) a drag performer in San Francisco, who serve to remind us that the LGBTQ movement is as textured as the AIDS quilt that Cleve Jones builds.
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Pictured: Michael Kenneth Williams as Ken Jones.
That is where the show grows stale — too often, the characters are just cogs in the machine of the movement, and lack depth. When We Rise is a goal-oriented show, so you can't really blame it for having characters that aren't more than agendas in '70s-era clothing. The actors turn in noble performances — Guy Pearce, wieling a cigarette and an eyeroll is downright lethal — but they're turning in A+ papers for history class. In fact, where the show works best is when it turns to archival footage to tell its tale. When Hillary and Bill Clinton visit the AIDS quilt on the White House Lawn, the show provides real footage of the president and first lady approaching the quilt. It's the reminder that, yes, these things happened, and with figures we still recognize that lends the series weight. When Baker v. Nelson is overturned — spoiler alert: That happened — it's footage of same-sex couples getting married that will earn your tears. Where the show lacks in creativity (the dialogue is demonstrative and bare), it curries favor in facts. Because the facts are there, and they'll wreck you just as much as a great performance or a great piece of dialogue.
There are other stale notes — the wigs and perms during the '70s era are all a bit suspect, and the pacing sometimes feels off, but these all bow down to the larger task at hand.
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It's worth noting that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also penned the 2008 film Milk, about the gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. That film occupied a smaller space in history and focussed on Milk himself, played by Sean Penn. With less historical real estate, Black created an emotional drama. Here, he has his work cut out for him. Milk is present in the story, but the character isn't shown on screen. (I lie — we do see his shoes briefly.) There's too much to do and too much ground to cover for the show to take on a Milk-level art. I would argue, though, that When We Rise isn't here to dilly dally is character territory. It's here to get down to business.
Which brings us today. Last week, President Donald Trump rescinded Obama's directive that lent protection to trans high school students in bathrooms. In the final episode of When We Rise, Roma asks Cleve, "Your fighter's heart finally feeling something?"
"No," he says, "There's too much left to fight for."
You might feel this way at the conclusion of When We Rise. "I do feel a little different, though," he adds. You might feel different, too.
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