There’s a revolution itself within the ABC mini-series “When We Rise." It seeks to share with a primetime, non-cable, mass audience the story of the gay civil rights movement across decades, which includes a center-stage depiction of the LGBTQ community and their activism, love and struggles. As a project created by “Milk” screenwriter (and Oscar-winner) Dustin Lance Black, it starts off as a magnetic work about these important events that are rarely told with such ambitious, expansive storytelling. Only by its own wild choices, like stunt casting and narrative stasis does the series start to lose its way, although the fire for the story it wants to tell is constantly, visibly burning.
“When We Rise” will play this week on ABC in four-episodes/six parts starting tonight, and the first episode is written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by the man who visualized “Milk,” Gus Van Sant. And along with this story making one want to revisit the 2008 biopic again (which I did directly because of this show), the series initially plays out like a spin-off of that film. It's based off the previously unpublished manuscript by activist Cleve Jones, who later worked for Milk’s campaign and starts off here as a young man (played by Austin P. McKenzie) who moves away from his suburban family to San Francisco in the early '70s, embracing his homosexuality and looking to connect with people who aren’t like his father (David Hyde Pierce), who in particular says that Cleve has a disease. Streets away in San Francisco, a young gay woman named Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs) is making her place in the city, trying to start up a movement for lesbian feminists, after a group like NOW (National Organization for Women) excluded them because of their homosexuality. And coming from overseas is a young black man from New Jersey who joined the armed forces, Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) who comes to San Francisco after being assigned to help with racial sensitivity training for other army and Navy men, while dealing with his own private sexuality. All the while, San Francisco is divided by homophobia, in which cops openly harass gay men and women, with the city even trying to push out the gay community thinking it will help their tourism. In this tense first episode (and in the second, which deals with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic killing gay men), the three leads are all compelling. While their characters are written to be a bit too glossy with their perfect words and their simple flaws, they're given raw embodiments by McKenzie, Skeggs and Majors. In turn, these performances offer a sense of discovery, both in the story’s vivid world, and of the new actors’ strong range.
The series wants to cover a lot of ground, and its fascinating most of all when it leads with history. I don’t mean specific events, of which this series is much more natural just hitting checkpoints or throwing in glaring cultural references. I’m referring to moments, like a powerful scene in which a group of men lock arms around a squad car, full of their friends who are being beaten and arrested by police for being gay, and sing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” from the bottom of their hearts. And there’s a unique, almost refreshing drama in how people who might have the same desire for equality don’t support other outsider groups, whether it’s due to race, age, gender or sexual orientation. As it seeks to show us a time when people gave their lives to activism, it reconciles the complicated roads to equality and shows how far different movements have come. “When We Rise” most successfully creates a sense of atmosphere, a you-are-there rush as it moves from year-to-year, but that proves hard for it to maintain.
In the third and fourth episodes, “When We Rise” leans on a campiness it had previous avoided, and that comes as it’s meant to be bigger with its name cast. Taking place ten years later, after the horrific plague shown in part two has been identified as HIV/AIDS, Guy Pearce comes in to finally play the role of Cleve, who is now a huge part of the quilting activism, and no longer just a narrator in the bookends; Michael K. Williams plays the part of Ken Jones, living with his partner Richard (Sam Jaeger) while dealing with their weak health; Mary-Louise Parker is Roma, continuing her life of activism but with new responsibilities given where she ends up at the conclusion of part two. The effect that these performances have is baffling in that it doesn’t make the series better, it makes it more like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which had stunt casting to bring in familiar faces. Strangely, only some characters are re-cast for this part, which is much less dramatically interesting despite its current time frames of 1992 and then 2008 (the year where part four starts). Despite the sincerity at their core, these three lead performances leave more to be desired from the script; Roma in particular takes on a story that has nothing to do with the movement, the effect of her character weakened by a comparable lack of focus. With the series still speaking in capital-I Important speeches scene-after-scene, it can make “When We Rise” the tedious epic that it originally was not.
One thing that the series never is, however, is insincere. Whether it’s propping up characters a bit too high, or if it’s putting actors through scenes that don’t seem to be in their range, “When We Rise” is more than just a great idea for a mini-series. It’s a potent display of unity by storytellers who have an exciting affection for this vital piece of American history.