tek's rating:

When We Rise, on ABC
ABC; A.V. Club; Dustin Lance Black; IMDb; TV.com; TV Tango; Wikipedia

Caution: spoilers, I guess. I mean, lots of spoilers, but this is all history, so....

This 2017 miniseries was written by Dustin Lance Black, who previously wrote the 2008 movie "Milk" (which I haven't seen, but probably should). That film was directed by Gus Van Sant, who is one of four directors of this miniseries (Black is another). This miniseries was partially inspired by LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones's 2016 memoir "When We Rise: My Life in the Movement" (which I haven't read). The 8-hour miniseries has seven parts, airing over four nights. Part one is two hours long, and two 1-hour episodes aired on the other three nights. There are three main protagonists, based on real activists of the same names, so I'm not sure how much of the story is fictionalized. But mostly the miniseries is, I believe, a somewhat accurate representation of real events (even if it leaves out a lot of important members of the movement(s) and lots of details, as it would be impossible to avoid, given that it's packing nearly 40 years of history into those eight hours). Of course, the miniseries does include lots of other people, and lots of events, too many for me to fully keep track of. (Though EW's recaps help.) I also want to mention that there are different actors playing the main characters when they're young adults in the first half of the miniseries than play them in the second half of the miniseries.

Part 1 (recap on Entertainment Weekly)
It begins in 2006, with Cleve Jones (played by Guy Pearce) giving an interview about the work he and others did for LGBT rights. His story starts in 1971, in Phoenix, Arizona. He's keeping his sexual orientation secret from his parents, mainly because his father, a psychologist (played by David Hyde Pierce), believes homosexuality to be a disease that needs to be cured. When he turns 18, Cleve comes out to his parents, and moves to San Francisco. Around the same time, an African-American Vietnam veteran in the Navy named Ken Jones is reassigned to a new Naval program to fight racial bias, also in San Francisco (not long after his lover, Michael, had died in an accident caused by a negligent order from their ship's captain). Meanwhile, a young woman from Maine named Roma Guy was just finishing up several years of work in West Africa, where she had a girlfriend named Diane Jones. Jones was in the Peace Corps, and I assumed Roma was, too, but I'm not certain about that. Anyway, Diane (pronounced like "Dionne") stays behind, while Roma returns to the U.S. (I should say that despite having the same last name, there's no relation between Cleve, Ken, and Diane.) And at the start of part one, Cleve, Roma, and Ken each read an issue of Life magazine that apparently inspires them. (Incidentally, before I watched the miniseries, I sort of thought it would include a depiction of the 1969 Stonewall riots, but it didn't. Stonewall was referred to in passing at one point, though by the time I started writing this review, I'd forgotten exactly when or in what capacity it was mentioned. I'd guess maybe it was related to the magazine article, though. Or not.)

And... I think most of the episode takes place in 1972, in fact that year may have appeared on screen before some of the things I already mentioned, or maybe right after all that stuff. Either way... Roma is now working for the National Organization for Women, in Boston. She had previously told Diane that she had to concentrate on fighting for women's rights, and couldn't handle also fighting for homosexual rights. But before long, NOW makes it clear that lesbians aren't welcome in the organization (a stance taken by Betty Friedan), so Roma moves to San Francisco. You'd think this might mean that she and Cleve and Ken would all meet each other before long, but actually it's not til about three quarters of the way through part one that Roma and Cleve meet each other, and then they don't meet Ken until pretty much the end of part one. But each of them have their own separate stories going on, before that, their own struggles. And I'm sure I couldn't follow all of it. We do see that the cops are very much against homosexuals, and will beat or arrest them for no reason. But anyway, Cleve soon meets a guy named Scott, and they become quite close. (I was kind of thinking he might have been Cleve's boyfriend from Phoenix, showing up in San Francisco unexpectedly, but I guess not. I'm really not good with faces and names.) Eventually, Scott leaves to travel the world, looking for the new "real San Francisco," since the counterculture movements of the 60s had died out in that city. But he and Cleve will keep in touch. Meanwhile, Roma gets involved with a group of lesbian activists, including a woman named Jean, who becomes Roma's lover. Jean had previously been involved with a woman named Sally Gearhart, who seemed to me to be the leader of the group (but I could have been mistaken about that). And I think there was some talk about non-monogamy, but I guess Roma wasn't ready for that, yet. So she and Jean become a couple, without Sally. In any event, some of the women in Sally's group actually profess to hate men (even gay men), but Roma is more open to the idea of working together with gay men for a common goal, especially after she meets Cleve, who helps get gay men to join her group's protest against violence towards women. Meanwhile, Ken struggles with both the conflict between his sexual orientation and his Christian upbringing, and the fact that the black community is particularly intolerant of homosexuality. But he does find acceptance at the Black Cat Cafe, which I guess is run by a transvestite called Mama Jose. It's at that cafe that he finally meets Cleve and Roma. And later, outside the cafe, he meets a man named Richard (Sam Jaeger, familiar to me from Parenthood). And Diane shows up in San Francisco, which could complicate Roma's relationship with Jean.

I should mention that throughout the first half of the miniseries, we'll see some other important activists, including Pat Norman (Whoopi Goldberg) and Del Martin (Rosie O'Donnell), though it always seemed to me like their parts in the story were too fleeting for me to get a sense of their place in the movement. Also throughout the miniseries, we occasionally see archival footage of real people like reporters, politicians, psychiatrists, etc., speaking about homosexuals. This helps give the miniseries a broader context than just the few people the story focuses on, as well as showing just how challenging it was to change people's minds about them.

Parts 2 & 3 (recap on EW)
Part two starts out in 1977, but I think just like part one started in '71 and almost immediately jumped to '72, part two almost immediately jumps to '78. Anyway, Roma has been bicycling around the country in support of women's rights. And I guess she was involved in opening Women's Centers, buildings where men weren't allowed. (Though at one point Cleve shows up to ask for her help, before amusingly- and amusedly- being dragged out by a couple of other women.) Roma's still dating Jean, but Diane is part of their group, now. It kind of seems weird to me that we never got to see or even hear about what happened right after she showed up in San Francisco, because it seems like that would have been some interesting drama. But we soon get a different kind of drama, when Diane decides she wants to have a "turkey baster baby," which the other women, especially Roma, aren't exactly thrilled about. (Roma's reaction of not wanting to be a mom seems especially odd, considering she and Diane weren't even a couple, at that point.) Meanwhile, all the different activist groups in the miniseries are opposed to Prop 6, a proposed law that would lead to anyone who was either homosexual or an ally of homosexuals being fired from teaching jobs, or I guess any jobs in a school district. This was particularly worrisome to Ken, because it would mean that Richard (who has been his boyfriend since the end of part one) could lose his job as a social worker. (Also, though Ken and Richard are living together, Richard's wife is also around, as a beard.) And... Ken is involved in some sort of movement, but I didn't follow all the details. (There's a guy named Gilbert who designs the now-familiar rainbow flag.) And Cleve is working on Harvey Milk's campaign to become county supervisor. This is what Cleve asked Roma for help with, though she'd rather support a female candidate. Eventually she agrees, so the gay men and lesbians again work together, though some of the lesbians quit the group because of that. Meanwhile, Scott finally returns to San Francisco, and I guess he starts living with Cleve and his friend Marvin. Oh, and there's another guy named Sylvester. But as I said, I'm bad with faces, and was often unsure who was who, in any given scene, let alone whether any of them were just friends or something more. Anyway, Milk ends up winning the election, and Prop 6 is defeated, so everyone's happy... until 20 days later, when Milk as well as the city's progressive mayor are assassinated. And the killer is convicted only of manslaughter, not murder, as he should have been.

Part three is set in 1981-82, and Diane now has a baby daughter named Annie. And um... I kind of thought that she and Roma had ended up together in part two, but I forget. At least I think Roma's relationship with Jean ended. But Roma and Diane definitely aren't together, at this point. Also, Diane is now working as a nurse. But the main focus of part three is a new epidemic that's killing gay men, which at first is called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), but which the audience of course knows will ultimately come to be known as AIDS. And Diane has to work with patients who suffer this still-mysterious disease. Or rather, she chooses to, because many other medical professionals are too scared to do so, a fact that Diane recognizes as homophobia. But she does eventually get back together with Roma. As for Ken, he's been working at a teen center (though I don't remember if that started in part two or part three). I think it's there that he befriends a trans woman named Cecilia Chung. And he knows at least one kid who contracts GRID. He eventually addresses the Black Forums at City Hall, talking about measures that should be taken to stop the spread of the disease, though no one agrees with him, largely because of the idea that "no real black man is gay"). Meanwhile, Cleve is now working for some other politician in Sacramento, I guess. And we meet a friend of his named Bobbi, who's basically one more person for me to fail to recognize from scene to scene. But then Bobbi gets GRID, and he's treated by a doctor named Marcus Conant, who does research on the disease. And I think that's what leads Cleve to return to San Francisco. (Or not, it's all really hard to follow.) Eventually, Cleve plays an important part in organizing a march to help raise awareness of the disease and the need for more funding to research it, since many people either didn't yet know about or else didn't care about a disease that was seen as targeting only gay men. (Of course, various public figures, particularly religious ones, claimed it was punishment from God for their "unnatural, sinful lifestyle.") And by the end of part three, Ken and Richard are revealed to be HIV-positive. (Also, the disease is finally called AIDS, and it's finally known that it affects more than just gay men.) Oh, and part three was narrated by future-Ken rather than future-Cleve.

On the third night, there was a documentary special called "When We Rise: The People Behind the Story" that aired before parts four and five, which gave a bit more context than the miniseries itself, in some ways.

Parts 4 & 5 (recap on EW)
And... somehow it took me a week after watching this part of the miniseries to start working on this part of my review, so now my memory is probably not very good for details, and I'll need EW's recaps more than ever. Anyway, it's now 1991-92. And it's now that the main characters are played by older actors (including Guy Pearce as Cleve in the actual story, in addition to his narration duties). Although oddly enough, Richard is still played by Sam Jaeger... but he's not around for long, I'm afraid. At this point, Cleve, Ken, and Richard all have AIDS, and Richard dies fairly early in this part. (I suppose being made to look sicker than Ken makes up for not having an older actor.) Ken's still working in the teen center, and he's still friends with Cecilia. And... after Richard's dies, his heretofore unseen family shows up to kick Ken out of his house (which had technically belonged to Richard, and since there's no legal protection for homosexual life partners, the house is now theirs, not Ken's). Meanwhile, one of the things Cleve had been a part of at the end of part three involved a wall where people posted names of people they knew who had died of AIDS. And that had inspired him to start an AIDS Memorial Quilt, with contributions from many people around the country. Now, in part four, he and his group bring the quilt to Washington, D.C., hoping to get the attention of President George H.W. Bush. Of course, that doesn't really work out. And what's more, there's a AIDS activism group called ACT UP, which is at odds with Cleve and his activists about how to best get the public and political support they all need. But at least he has a nice boyfriend named Ricardo, now. And Cleve finally makes peace with his father. And Dr. Conant is doing his best to find new was of treating AIDS, though Cleve is far from optimistic about any of the drugs that are available. And Ricardo eventually leaves, after realizing he himself has become sick. And Cleve never sees him again, because Ricardo dies while away. And later, Bill Clinton becomes President, and seems like he could be more helpful than Bush was, for gays and lesbians, but ultimately... he supports Bush's terrible Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and starts his own terrible policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." So Cleve is very disillusioned and angry. But things are going better for Roma (now played by Mary-Louise Parker) and Diane (now played by Rachel Griffiths). They're living together happily, and raising Diane's now ten-year-old daughter, Annie. Meanwhile, Roma is still doing her own activism, and gets some help from Cleve. Roma's backing a lesbian political candidate in San Francisco named Carole Migden , and there's a gay politician named Tom Ammiano, but I'm afraid I didn't follow and/or don't remember all the details of that. I just know Roma didn't seem to like Tom much. And then, when Annie asks her moms who here biological father is, Roma gets her friend Shoshanna, who had obtained sperm from an anonymous donor for Diane eleven years ago, to track down that donor... and it turns out to be Tom. Awkward!

By part five (in 1997), Ken is seriously addicted to drugs. In a support group, he meets a man named David, who ends up feeding his addiction even more. Eventually, Ken is hospitalized, and later starts working for a church that is obviously against homosexuality (though I'm really not sure if the women who worked there had any idea he was gay or not, at least they were willing to help a recovering addict). Speaking of which, the church ladies had been introduced to Ken by Cecilia, and I also don't know if they had any idea she was transgender. Meanwhile, Cleve is now living in Palm Springs. And he's at odds with other activists, like the Human Rights Campaign, and a Clinton adviser named Richard Socarides (who is gay, but whose own father, Dr. Charles Socarides, is very famously anti-gay). But eventually, Cleve helps Richard with ideas for a speech he's writing for Clinton... which ultimately doesn't go as they'd hoped. In other news, one day Cleve hears a neighbor's baby crying incessantly, and he goes in to help, while the single father is passed out. The father later abandons the baby, and Cleve tries to become her foster parent, but child services takes the baby away from him when they find out he has AIDS, leaving him once again devastated. Meanwhile, Annie is now sixteen, and has become rebellious. But... I feel no need to go into any detail about what her rebelliousness actually entailed, or how her moms dealt with it. (Annie also gets narration duties for part five. Although it was either at the end of part four or five, I forget which, that 2006 Cleve concluded his narrative interview by making some kind of challenge to the interviewer- and his entire generation- to wake up and become more activist. Or whatever.)

Parts 6 & 7 (recap on EW)
It's now 2008, and Obama is president. So that's good. But also, everyone's concerned about California's Prop 8, which would make same-sex marriages illegal in the state (after only having been made legal there in 2004). So... looking at EW, it seems Cleve was butting heads with the very interviewer he'd inspired to become active, about what form that activism should take. And I gotta say, when I watched it, I didn't have a clue that was supposed to be the same guy. Anyway, the nameless guy is working with a woman named Robin (whose name I only know from the recap, though she still made more of an impression on me than nameless guy). And I kind of feel like I'm getting events from part six mixed up, in my fuzzy memory, with stuff that happened in parts four and/or five. But whatever, Cleve eventually starts working with them. Meanwhile, Ken is doing much better now that he's working with the church group that helped him get over his drug addiction, except... he has to reject his sexuality. However, the church I guess, like, rents its space out once a week to a group led by Yvette Flunder (Phylicia Rashad), called the City of Refuge Church. Eventually the church ladies decide to stop renting their church out to them, and Ken defects from the congregation that had helped him, to join this new church. And he gets help from Cecilia (who now works for the Human Rights Commission) and Roma (now a member of San Francisco's Health Commission) in finding funding for the City of Refuge Church. Meanwhile, Annie is now an adult (so she's been played by more actresses now than any other character in the miniseries). And she has a boyfriend named Jandro, with whom she has a baby daughter, named Justice. And Roma later tries to get help for a man named Victor, whose wife has cancer, and can't get medical insurance.

And... since EW doesn't break up its recaps by episode but by night of airing (meaning four parts instead of seven), and I can't remember myself now what happened in which episode, I'm going to assume that most or all of what happened in 2009-10 was part seven. But since it also breaks up recaps by character rather than by year, I'm probably mixing up even more things. And it's all fairly muddled. There was at least one court case, which I think was to strike down DOMA. And it succeeded. And Roma's fight to get universal health care for San Francisco also succeeds. And Annie and Jandro want to get married, though Roma doesn't believe in marriage. But she eventually decides to marry Diane. And we get to see Cleve, Ken, Roma, and Diane all together in the end, which is nice considering how much time they spend apart throughout the miniseries. Also, Ken becomes a minister and marries gay couples. And at her moms' wedding, Annie has an emotional speech that includes a soundbite I heard way too many times in commercials for the miniseries before it aired, but it works better in context. And I hope I'm not forgetting anything important. But despite a happy ending, there are far too many tragic losses along the way, through the decades (including minor characters/real people I haven't even mentioned in passing, as well as some I have). And it ends with some onscreen text that reminds us the struggle isn't over. Because this is 2017, after all.

Anyway, it's nice to see an attempt at intersectionality. You know, feminism, gay rights, rights for different races, and transgender people, and health care, and whatnot. I kind of felt like some of those things weren't given as much time as others. (In particular, I felt like Cecilia should have had a larger role in the story.) But as I said before, it's hard to squeeze 40 years into 8 hours, for even one issue, let alone all the ones that were included here. And there's nothing wrong with a story having a central focus. And, despite my having trouble occasionally following (or remembering) all the characters and all the specific things they fought for or against, I generally enjoyed the miniseries, and liked the main characters. And of course, it's a story (or stories) that needed, and continues to need, telling.

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