In honor of rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker’s birthday, I’m going to kick off my month of LGBTQ-themed reviews with a work that features him: director Dustin Lance Black’s 2017 miniseries When We Rise.
Partly based on Cleve Jones’s 2016 memoir of the same name, When We Rise chronicles the gay rights movement from its early days in the 1970s to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage across the U.S. The scope of the miniseries is considerably larger than Jones’s memoir, including the stories of activists and advocates Roma Guy, Ken Jones, and others. Even the existence of the miniseries is historically significant–it feels like a dream sometimes when a major network like ABC is willing to air an unapologetic celebration of LGBT people.
With that in mind, I was prepared to be underwhelmed or even disappointed. When people expect a film to be iconic and culturally significant, that puts pressure on the filmmakers to deliver, and that often results in disappointments. I did my best to view it with realistic expectations, and the result is that I’m less enamored with it than a lot of the people I’ve spoken to, but found it moving and effective nonetheless.
Let’s start with what works. I was pleasantly surprised by how unflinching it is. Television, particularly network television, has a bad history of sanitizing LGBT people and their relationships. These characters kiss, negotiate sexual relationships, and fall in love without coy fades to black. The highs and lows of their lives are depicted in ways that mostly feel real. Not everyone gets a Hollywood happy ending, but being LGBT is never presented as a tragedy.
Though the miniseries sometimes feels like its bitten off more than it can chew (more on that later), it does an admirable job of depicting LGBT activism from multiple perspectives. Cleve Jones (played as a young man by Austin P. McKenzie and later by Guy Pearce) moves from Arizona to San Francisco seeking a gay utopia but finds a city where gay men are routinely attacked by police and gay bashers alike and where survival means crashing in over-crowded apartments and making money by street hustling. He eventually works with Harvey Milk’s campaign (a period that’s mostly glossed over) and later witnesses the devastating impact of HIV on the gay male community. Roma Guy (portrayed by Emily Skeggs and Mary-Louise Parker) struggles to reconcile her lesbian identity and her commitment to the women’s movement when she encounters homophobia in the mainstream feminist community. Meanwhile, the lesbian feminists she ultimately aligns herself with are often hesitant to work with gay men. Ken Jones (portrayed by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams), who’s African American, encounters racism in the predominately white gay community and homophobia from some parts of the African American community. He later faces homelessness after his partner dies of AIDS and he is kicked out of the home they shared. Other notable figures appear, including transgender activist Cecilia Chung (Ivory Aquino), Daughters of Bilitis co-founder Del Martin (Rosie O’Donnell), and rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker (Jack Plotnick).
Of course, When We Rise obviously couldn’t depict the entire LGBT rights movement, even in eight hours. But it makes a mark by depicting some aspects that have not been explored as much in film, such as Cleve Jones’s creation of the AIDS Quilt and the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. It also explores conflicts with in the movement and the tension between mainstream activism and those who can’t or choose not to work within the establishment. As a young man, Cleve Jones is told by early gay Democratic activist Jim Foster (Denis O’Hare) that his hair is too long and that he doesn’t look the part enough to be a public face for LGBT rights. Later in life, Jones is cynical by the lack of protest that he sees from the younger generation and the dependence on legislation and political cooperation from groups like the Human Rights Campaign. These are interesting conflicts that don’t always get the attention they deserve.
But When We Rise isn’t without its flaws. One is pacing. The first half of the miniseries takes its time to establish the characters and show the early days of the gay liberation movement. At times, the pace feels somewhat slow, but for the most part it works. Once we skip ahead in time, however, the pace feels much more rushed and there just isn’t enough time to fit in another thirty years of history. Some of this may be because of the influence of Jones’s memoir, which is primarily focused on his earlier days in the movement. New subplots get maybe a couple scenes of development before they’re over. Nods are given to important figures who get a few lines in and then disappear. One scene where Cleve Jones visits an ACT UP meeting and speaks to Larry Kramer flies by so quickly that it almost feels like an easter egg for people who are already familiar with Kramer.
The cast is strong and both sets of actors bring nuance and emotion to the roles, but the age jump is distracting due to the lack of resemblance between some of the younger actors and their older counterparts. To be fair, I don’t fault When We Rise for this. It’s always difficult to cast a character who ages over the course of the story, and because the older and younger actors are both in the miniseries for a lengthy time, casting people who could play the roles needed to take priority over casting based on resemblance. Attempting to age-up the younger actors with makeup or prosthetics would have been even more distracting. Still, it’s jarring to get to know the characters only to suddenly have them played by people who have significantly different features.
Ultimately, I didn’t feel like my viewing experience suffered much from these issues. Yes, there were occasional subplots where I got the sense that I was missing some context by not being familiar with the person being depicted. But a miniseries such as this should be a jumping-off point, not an all-inclusive history lesson. As someone who is reasonably familiar with LGBTQ history, it was both comfortably familiar and informative, and several things that I learned for the first time. When We Rise is worth a watch for anyone who is interested in learning more about the LGBTQ rights movement or even just honoring some of the people who fought to get us where we are today.