when we rise
TV, 2017, 3.5 stars
Created: Dustin Lance Black
Part history lesson, part emotional exploration, When We Rise attempts to chronicle the key moments of the gay rights movement through the eyes of some famous and not-so-well known characters, all of whom somehow managed to survive the four or so decades that are spanned in this series.
Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones are all gay, but they come to San Francisco in vastly different ways, through the work they do for entirely different causes. Cleve Jones’s activism was born out of the anti-war movement. Ken Jones, a Vietnam veteran, is given a job assimilating the military and it is questions of race that stir his activist soul. Roma Guy is a strong presence within the women’s movement, and only comes late to the realisation of her sexuality. Through circumstances, they are all drawn together in the melting pot that is San Francisco in the seventies, to become leaders of a fledgling movement.
When We Rise is the brainchild of Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of Milk, the biopic of the late Harvey Milk. Cleve Jones was a supporting character in that film, but Black chose to centre his 4-part, 8-hour mini-series around this unlikely hero.
For all that this series is important, and timely in ways the filmmakers could never have suspected when they began, the execution of it doesn’t quite live up to its ambition. The film itself is quite staid, following a narrative structure that’s traditional for a TV movie, never breaking out or being inventive in any way.
This is conservative work for directors of this calibre – Gus Van Sant and Thomas Schlamme are experienced filmmakers who have made some outstanding films and TV shows. This series, especially the final two chapters, has a static feeling about it that bogs it down – it doesn’t crackle with the fire you’d expect from something showing a movement of radicals fighting for their rights. It’s uneven, sporadically badly written, and lacking energy and focus.
However, When We Rise has two fundamental things in its favour. One, the series was shown on the ABC. Not on Showcase or HBO or Netflix where the truly controversial TV series usually get shown, and where conservative America would never deign to tread. It was shown in family time on a traditionally conservative network. That means that maybe, now or sometime in the future on re-runs, some people who truly need to see the message that this series conveys might see it, and better understand the history of the gay movement.
Secondly, there are some truly wonderful moments here. The series does pull unashamedly on heartstrings, showing the humanity of the struggle and the people inside it, as they balanced their personal victories and tragedies with those of the movement that they lived and breathed.
I did find part three of the series to be relentlessly harrowing, but this is hardly surprising. Part three covers a time when the worst of the AIDS epidemic tore through the gay community, killing thousands, while the health authorities and politicians in power did nothing. I remember myself, coming into activism in the early 90’s, not knowing a single gay person who didn’t know someone who was either HIV positive, or who had died. The memories of that time, and the evidence being presented of the extent of the horror, reduced me to weeping.
The lead actors change halfway through the series, as the story skips ahead decades. While individually all six lead performances were outstanding, there needed to be more of a connection between the performances of the young and older versions of each character. It was difficult to even reconcile them as the same people, even as we were drawn to and began to feel empathy for these older, wiser activists, battered but not broken by a lifetime in the struggle.
Ken Jones comes the closest to self-destruction. There is a moment after the death of his partner and his treatment by the courts and his partner’s family that tore me to the core, I could almost not continue watching.
I think I probably enjoyed the first two episodes more, the characters so full of life and embarking on the beginnings of their journey, before the AIDS epidemic swoops in to decimate the community. Emily Skeggs in particular as a young Roma Guy is remarkable. How was someone so young and so driven, yet so focused she has no self awareness until it’s almost too late? Roma and Diane’s romance is the heart of the story, filling the screen with an unexpected passion.
Their romance as older women is just as powerful, just in a different way. Mary Louise Parker and Rachel Griffith struggle both in their professions as activists and as parents. Their joy in each other as the laws change and they are able, finally, to marry is something I dare you to watch without at least a small tear of joy.
If only the filmmakers’ execution had matched their ambition this could have been really extraordinary. As it is it feels a little pedestrian and drags in parts, with moments of real triumph and emotional connection that keep you hanging in there. It’s frustrating, exciting, moving, infuriating and sorrowful, all at once. It's wildly inconsistent in feeling and tone. An emotional rollercoaster for those of us who lived it, but is it powerful enough to resonate with the people who didn’t? Of that I’m not at all certain.