In recent years, LGBT themes have been shown on the big and small screens. We’ve seen And The Band Played On, Philadelphia, Angels In America, Milk, and Moonlight.
When We Rise looks to tell the full story from beginning to present day. Unlike Milk, the miniseries covers a larger spectrum of history and encompasses several arcs. Rather than being about the life of one person, it is a story of humanity.
You might recognize familiar names on the crew. American Beauty producer Bruce Cohen serves as executive producer. Milk writer Dustin Lance Black conceived the miniseries, wrote the scripts and directs two episodes. Fittingly, Milk director Gus Van Saint helms the first two instalments of the miniseries.
When We Rise covers a span of nearly 50 years from the late 1960s to 2015. The story begins with the Stonewall Riots in 1969. From there, we move into the 1970s and progress through the 1980s. The second half of the miniseries covers the 1990s to the present day.
In 1972, young Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie) leaves Arizona and heads for San Francisco. Later, he volunteers for local businessman Harvey Milk, who runs for a spot on the Board of City Supervisors. By 1977, Milk becomes the first openly-gay official elected to public office.
Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) is an a community organizer and Navy veteran. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he struggles and comes to terms with his homosexuality. However, he has to deal with the lack of support from the black community. In one scene, a few former friends tell him that there is no such thing as gay black men. The moment is painful to behold, because it shows how other minorities did not understand LGBT people.
Meanwhile, feminist Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs) moves from Boston to San Francisco. She takes issue with the National Organization for Women’s stance on ousting lesbians from their ranks. From 1978 to 1979, Roma lobbies to help create the non-profit Women’s Building. Later, she and her girlfriend Diane (Fiona Dourif) start a family by raising a daughter, Annie.
In the early 1980s, the AIDs epidemic hits the gay community. With no information on the epidemic, fears run rampant about how one could get the virus. Cleve discovers he is HIV positive, while several others in San Francisco succumb to the disease. Meanwhile, Ken also suffers heartbreak as his partner Richard discovers he has AIDs.
Years later, Ken (Michael K Williams) is deeply struggling after Richard’s death in 1992. During this time, an older Cleve (Guy Pearce) starts the NAMES Project AIDs Memorial Quilt and campaigns for HIV/AIDs research. He also mends fences with his father, who comes to terms with his son’s homosexuality. When Richard passes away, Ken falls into despair and turns to drug addiction.
At this time, a middle-aged Roma (Mary Louise Parker) and Diane (Rachel Griffiths) try to cope with raising Annie, who is becoming aware of her family dynamic and wishes to meet her biological dad. The father in question is local politician and LGBT activist Tom Ammiano, and he develops a bond with Annie. Both moms are also nervous about her attending a Catholic school, as well as how teenagers can be mercilessly cruel.
In the mid-late 1990s, Cleve tries to live a quiet life and manage his health. Now in his 40s, he has more or less chosen to step away from the LBGT movement. He rescues a baby girl from a neglectful father and grows to love her. When he tries to adopt the child, social services takes her away upon learning he has HIV. The scene is hard to watch, and Cleve’s heartbreak is strongly felt. At the time, LGBT individuals were not seen as ideal choices for foster kids.
By the 2000s, Cleve has become part of the movement again. He feels the Obama Administration has done a slow job in providing aid to LGBT rights. Meanwhile, Ken manages to pull himself together, accepts help from the VA, and even finds religion. When Proposition 8 revokes California’s marriage equality, Cleve takes steps to organize the National Equality March on Washington. Roma and Diane resolve to marry if same-sex marriage becomes legal. Now, the goal is to take Prop 8 through the federal court system to the Supreme Court.
Austin McKenzie and Guy Pearce do a great job as the young and older Cleve Jones. McKenzie does really well in showing Cleve’s growth from teen runaway to LGBT activist. As a character actor, Pearce has done several roles in various genres, but it is here in which he reveals his range. He displays a quiet, nuanced strength in his fight to live, as well as a gentle side in becoming a foster parent.
Mary Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths are believable as Roma and Diane. Their struggles in raising a child are believable and relatable, especially when facing prejudice and uncertainty. In one poignant moment, Griffiths projects Diane’s fear that their status as a lesbian couple has affected their daughter.
Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams are heartbreaking as Ken Jones. Majors’ frustration with the black community’s treatment of LGBTs is tough material and difficult to watch. As the older Ken, Williams takes the character journey of loss, addiction and redemption are moving.
When We Rise succeeds in telling a human story, and it really shows in the final product. Kudos to the cast and crew for a job well done.