Film

‘When We Rise’ Looks at the LGBT Rights Movement Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It

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Dustin Lance Black didn’t think it was going to be like this.

A few years back, when he was pitching his latest project — a four-night ABC miniseries on the decades-long struggle for LGBT rights in America — the screenwriter, director, and producer had every reason to expect that it would be airing in a climate of continuing progressive change.

Instead, When We Rise will premiere next month in the teeth of a backlash, against not just LGBT rights, but those of African Americans, immigrants, women, and Muslims, that promises to make the series unexpectedly compelling. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, this sometimes glossy network take on a wrenching historical struggle might have seemed much less urgent, a look back at a fight that had been mostly won. As it is, When We Rise seems more like a brave and necessary act of witness to a battle that is far from over.

Black admits he wasn’t completely taken by surprise by the election results. “I saw the warning signs,” he says, noting that he grew up Mormon in Texas, part of a military family. “Most of the family I love are still very religious and live in parts of the country where equality isn’t welcomed — and wasn’t welcomed historically.”

Those are exactly the people Black hopes will tune in for four straight nights starting February 27 to watch the eight-hour series, which tells the story of the fight for LGBT equality in the United States starting in 1972, when many in the nation had just learned about the gay-rights movement for the first time via a Life magazine story called “Homosexuals in Revolt.” The true-life struggles of a few San Francisco–based advocates are cast as an epic tale of all-American heroism: The characters encounter systemic injustice, individual acts of hate and violence, and profound self-doubt, but the overall theme is one of transcendence and empowerment. Black says he wanted the series to be relatable for everyone, regardless of their position on LGBT rights.

“When I was growing up, ABC was the station we trusted,” says Black from his home in London, where he lives with his fiancé, Olympic diver Tom Daley. “I thought, wow, this might be an opportunity to talk about LGBT stories in a way that reaches the people I grew up with. And wouldn’t be just preaching to the choir.”

As the miniseries follows activists from the 1970s to the present day, we meet Roma Guy (played by Emily Skeggs as a young woman and Mary Louise Parker as an older one), who founds the Women’s Building community center in the Mission and becomes increasingly radicalized as she discovers her own sexuality; Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce), who comes to San Francisco seeking a gay haven and goes on to found the Names Project and create the AIDS Memorial Quilt; Ken Jones (remarkable newcomer Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams), who served in the Navy in Vietnam and became a community organizer; and Guy’s partner, Diane Jones (Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths), a women’s-rights activist and nurse who was on the front lines taking care of early AIDS patients. Rosie O’Donnell shows up as legendary early lesbian activist Del Martin, who fought to decriminalize homosexuality in California in the Seventies and lived long enough to be legally married to Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 56 years, in 2008; Whoopi Goldberg plays Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee at the San Francisco health department, who struggled with how open to be about the crisis engulfing the gay community; David Hyde Pierce plays Cleve Jones’s tormented father, who wants his son “cured” of homosexuality; and Ivory Aquino plays transgender activist Cecilia Chung, who fought to gain recognition for trans people at a time when they faced rejection from many lesbians and gay men. The ensemble’s paths converge as they live through the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the AIDS crisis, changes in the ability to have and adopt children, the fight for marriage equality, and other historic milestones (only the first five hours were available for screening as of press time).

When We Rise is in many ways a conventional major-network product: straightforward, slickly produced, and not afraid to pull on viewers’ heartstrings. There are star-crossed lovers, earnest speeches (“If straight people were dropping dead, the world would be redirecting its resources straight to us”), and moments of unexpected triumph. There are moments of sheer corniness, too, like when the rainbow flag is hoisted for the first time outside San Francisco City Hall and one character looks up at it and muses aloud, “If we ever want to be free, then we have to stop hiding.”

Black knows that this approach might alienate some of those “in the choir.” And he’s OK with that. Not everyone knows that U.S. military officers once faced dishonorable discharge for even entering bars that were suspected of catering to a gay clientele, or that even the National Organization for Women shunned openly lesbian members. Not everyone recalls the pain suffered by faithful partners left with nothing when loved ones died of AIDS.

“When I was writing it, I was thinking about a handful of aunts and uncles and cousins, and what it is they don’t know yet, and the stories they haven’t heard yet,” Black says. “To my family who aren’t exposed to LGBT issues on a weekly or even annual basis, they need to hear it and see it a little bit clearer, because some of it is brand-new to them.”

Even if you’re part of the choir, When We Rise has the power to surprise and move, and to bring buried history to light. It’s painful to watch one character being threatened with electroshock therapy for admitting that he’s gay, or to see another leave behind the woman she loves for fear of what people would say. And some of the archival footage is enough to turn your stomach, like the clip of prominent anti-gay psychoanalyst Charles Socarides saying, “The whole idea of saying ‘the happy homosexual’ is to create a myth about homosexuality.” (Socarides’ son Richard later became an openly gay adviser to the Clinton administration on LGBT issues.)

When We Rise covers some of the same historical ground as Black’s biggest project to date, the 2008 film Milk. (It also reunites Black with Milk director Gus Van Sant, who co-executive-produced the series and directed its first two hours.) In his heartfelt acceptance speech for the best-screenplay Oscar, Black invoked a future in which LGBT people have equal rights across the country, and for a few years, it seemed that progress on that front was unstoppable: The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision delivered marriage equality on the federal level, and the Obama administration dramatically expanded recognition of transgender rights.

With Trump’s election putting many of those gains at risk, though, When We Rise becomes painfully timely and relevant. Watching archival footage of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant sweetly explaining, “If homosexuals are allowed their civil rights, then so would prostitutes or thieves or anyone else” in the late 1970s is an eerie reminder that her malevolent spirit has been re-embodied in the form of Vice President–elect Mike Pence.

Using two casts to carry the sweeping narrative from 1972 to the present day is a technique Black borrowed from the miniseries Roots, which trusted its audience to be committed to the narrative. When We Rise is indebted to that milestone 1977 series in other ways as well, he says: “I remember watching Roots as a Southern boy who had heard a lot of racist stuff in my life. I remember how that series changed me. And it did it with personal stories of a family. I would in no way think that I could re-create that, but I certainly aspired to tell personal LGBT stories in hopes that people would connect with LGBT families.”

Black says he telescoped the timeline and combined some characters to fit four-plus decades of history into eight hours. But, he says, “I thought it was important to keep it true.” To that end, Black actively involved the surviving real people being portrayed onscreen not only in the writing but in the filming, flying many of them to Vancouver so they could be on set for crucial scenes. The cross that Pearce, as Cleve Jones, holds during the emotional monologues that frame the narrative is the very same one left to Jones by his partner, Ricardo (Rafael de la Fuente), who died of AIDS-related complications, and the bullhorn we see Jones using to rally crowds of protesters demanding action on AIDS is the same one Milk gave him in real life. (The series is based in part on Jones’s memoir of his life in the movement.)

Black doesn’t hesitate to show the deep conflicts within the movement, including the racist attitudes of Castro bar owners in the early Seventies and the sometimes ugly rifts between gay men and lesbians at the start of the AIDS crisis. It’s bruising and disillusioning to hear lesbian hero Martin saying, “If it’s a gay male issue, is it any surprise? I mean, seriously, come on, they go out at night, they do lots of drugs, they drink all the time, and they have sex with strangers. Is it a shock if they catch something?” Black says it was a creative choice to be transparent about how hard it is to build a movement: “I think young activists coming to the fight need to know that you’re going to get some of the greatest resistance from your own, to be prepared for that and that those struggles exist.”

The only thing that can get a social movement beyond those divisions, he believes, is inclusiveness, and he practiced that in the making of the series. “It’s called When We Rise for a reason,” Black says. “If you look at my writers room, it was gay and straight and black and white and men and women. And we hashed out those struggles in the room.” He singles out Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie), who directed two hours in the series, for providing crucial insight. “Dee Rees schooled me on what it was like to be an African-American lesbian in the movement,” he says.

Making similar connections among groups under threat from the Trump administration will be key to responding to the current political crisis, Black says. “We have to understand our interconnectedness with racial minorities, religious minorities, immigrants, the women’s movement,” he says. “We have to figure out how to come together and have each other’s backs if we’re going to fight off this backlash. Because it is going to be work. It’s going to be hard work.”

Part of the job will be learning to ignore the voices of hate both online and in real life. The show’s trailers on YouTube have drawn predictably loathsome comments: “A literal AIDS dumpster fire.” “I bet it’s gonna end when they summon their lord and fucking savior Hillary Clinton to kill Trump, then make being straight or straight and white illegal.” “People are so damn sick of all this compulsive political correctness and triggered snowflakes crying for their safe space.” “I want each last responsible for this piece of derogatory anti-White filth put to the syringe. How is this remotely acceptable, legal?” And on and on.

Black insists he isn’t going to worry much about people like that. “That’s a very vocal minority and that’s not who I’m going for here,” he says. “I’ll have to let those people say what they will. I’m not sure those are people whose hearts are changeable.”

He does believe that there are masses of changeable hearts out there. In spite of anti-gay trolls, in spite of the election results, in spite of the prospect of a Supreme Court that could shred the progress on LGBT rights made over the past forty years, Black maintains faith in the power of narrative to transform opinions.

“You can preach until you’re blue in the face about poll numbers, about politics, about science, about the Constitution, and you’re not going to change a damn mind,” he says. “You want to change a mind, you have to change a heart. You want to change a heart, you’d better introduce yourself, introduce your family, and tell your personal story. If you tell your truth and you do it truthfully, people will relate.”

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