When We Rise cast
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Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths will star in “When We Rise,” ABC’s gay rights movement event series from writer Dustin Lance Black, Variety has learned.

The project chronicles the personal and political struggles, setbacks and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. Civil Rights movement from its turbulent infancy in the 20th century to the once unfathomable successes of today. The period piece tells the history of the gay rights movement, starting with the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

Pearce will star as LGBT activist Cleve Jones, who joined the gay liberation movement in 1972 and was befriended by pioneer gay rights leader Harvey Milk. He founded the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and led the National March for Equality in 2009. Parker will play women’s rights leader Roma Guy, who co-founded the San Francisco Women’s Building, and as a public health commissioner worked with others to bring healthcare access to all San Franciscans. Griffiths will play her wife, social justice activist Diane, who joined the Women’s Movement in the 1970s in San Francisco, co-founded the Women’s Building and has worked as an HIV/AIDS nurse and social justice activist at San Francisco General Hospital for 33 years.

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Also cast are Austin McKenzie (“Spring Awakening”) as the young Cleve Jones; Emily Skeggs (“Fun Home”) as the young Roma Guy; newcomer Jonathan Majors as the young Ken Jones; and Fiona Dourif (“The Master”) as the young Diane. Still yet to be cast are the roles of African-American community organizer Ken Jones and transgender activist Cecelia Chung.

The highly anticipated project marks a reunion for Gus Van Sant and Black, who worked together on “Milk,” for which the latter won an Oscar for his screenplay. Van Sant is directing the two-hour premiere of “When We Rise,” and the duo will exec produce with Laurence Mark and Bruce Cohen (“Milk”). ABC Studios is producing the eight-hour, seven-episode event series.

“When We Rise” is a passion project for Black, who was raised in a Mormon home in Texas. Since breaking out in Hollywood, he has worked tirelessly for marriage equality and gay rights and spoke of the matter, while delivering his acceptance speech at the 2009 Academy Awards for the Harvey Milk biopic that starred Sean Penn.

“It’s been the honor of my life to research and craft these stories of family, diversity and equality over the past three years,” said Black in a statement today. “To have collaborators of this caliber sign on to help bring these stories to life is a tremendous vote of confidence, and I hope a testament to the relevancy and necessity of our continued march toward justice for all.”

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