TV Review: ‘When We Rise’ a More Rousing Than Rote History Lesson

It’s fantastic to see stories of the LGBTQ+ community told on a mass platform. This is particularly true of stories related to people of color, lesbian or transgender movements, which often get swept under the rug. In many ways, film has acted as an oral history in our society. This is why representation in media is so very important in chronicling movements for future generations. In that regard, the expansive “When We Rise” is an achievement one has to take considerable note of. Yes, in many ways it is a dutiful history lesson on the headline grabbing moments of the gay rights movement since the 1970s. However, many of the human elements do bubble to the surface as well. The miniseries reaches high, and doesn’t always quite get there. However, in striving for so much, it still achieves a great deal.

Spanning four decades, the eight episode miniseries centers the many issues the LGBTQ+ community has faced around three tangential storylines. Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie, Guy Pearce) escapes to San Francisco after his doctor father suggests electroshock therapy or a lobotomy to cure him of his gayness. His outspoken demeanor turns him into an LGBTQ+ activist from the onset that comes to a head during the ’90s with the AIDS quilt. McKenzie equips himself well at balancing Jones’ flamboyance, charm and passion. His momentum carries much of the early segments. Pearce plays Jones a bit more broad, and suffers for it. What was once an effervescent, possibly tragic character gets pushed to near farce.

On the other side, Roma Pauline Gay (Emily Skeggs, Mary-Louise Parker) leaves her lover, Diane Jones (Fiona Dourif, Rachel Griffiths), on an abroad mission trip to travel to the U.S. to help with women’s rights issues. It’s not until she arrives at San Francisco, and gets involved with the likes of Sally Gearhart (Carrie Preston), that she begins to come to terms with being a lesbian. As Diane joins her in San Francisco, the two eventually get back together. Diane expresses an interest in having a baby. From there, the two navigate the tricky waters of parenting as a lesbian couple. While Skeggs is all pluck and ambition, Parker truly gives the definitive performance. Her performance is equally fiery, but much more nuanced. Her and Griffiths find a great lived-in chemistry, providing one of the most satisfying moments in the final episode.

The most unique storyline comes in the form of Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, Michael K. Williams). Jones was a Navy veteran who gets stationed in San Francisco. His placement allows him to dip his toes in the gay scene. By the time the AIDS crisis rolls around and wreaks havoc on his longterm partner, Richard (an excellent Sam Jaeger), Jones becomes a more prominent African American community organizer and advocate for the LGBTQ+ plight. Rather than just be a triumphant figure of the movement, the series wisely chronicles Jones’ ups and downs. His struggle to obtain medical help from the veterans association and subsequent dependence on drugs and alcohol perfectly illustrate the perils of being on the fringe of society. His complicated relationship with God in the later chapters highlights the interesting, tumultuous relationship between religion and homosexuality. It would have been interesting to explore that topic further.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees and Thomas Schlamme, each section marries the unique strengths of the director at hand with the style of the era being depicted. From the carefree, yet brutal ‘70s, to the hopeless ‘90s amidst AIDS, to the all too recent struggles of the millennium, each section is distinct, yet cohesive. Rees equips herself well directing the ’80s portion. She shows how the AIDS crisis shifted the tone and outlook of both the gay community and the world around it. Archival footage meshes wonderfully in the proceedings, particularly as President Clinton visits the AIDS quilt in the ’90s period. In creating the show, much credit has to be given to writer Dustin Lance Black for his sprawling vision. 

In focusing the last episode on the quest for marriage equality, which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of in 2015, the show manages to once again state how the quest for LGBTQ+ rights is still ongoing. There is a wonderful exchange between Roma and Cleve where they grapple with victory. It seems to bring them little satisfaction. As activists, they are in it for the long haul and can’t help but continue to fight. This drive to continually fight is the most interesting part of the series. It’s also a through line that could have been worked into the DNA of the show more. We see the question posed about what makes an activist keep going. It would’ve been nice to have more moments that delve deeper into people who put their lives on hold for the greater good.

There is a time and place for a history lesson. That time and place doesn’t always happen to be on TV. At least not like the days when a miniseries like “Roots” would set ratings records. However, “When We Rise” effectively packages LGBTQ+ history for the masses in a digestible, if didactic package. In particular, moments focused on the women’s organizations or the African American community paint a more textured picture of the struggle. Films, such as “Stonewall,” have whitewashed so many historic LGBTQ+ events. It’s nice to see experiences of other subsets of the community, even if much is spent with Cleve Jones.

“When We Rise” aired over four nights on ABC and is currently available on Hulu.

Grade: (★★★ ½)

Trailer:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwvgMNE9ozg]

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