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‘When We Rise’ EP Dustin Lance Black: ‘This Is Going to Be More Timely Than I Thought’

“From the beginning I said it should be ‘When We Rise,’ the we being the biggest part of it,” says writer/producer/director Dustin Lance Black, of naming the eight-hour, four-part miniseries that premieres on February 27 on ABC.

A few feet away, director Dee Rees (“Bessie”) sets up a scene outside the storefront that once housed activist Harvey Milk’s campaign office for City Supervisor (it’s now fittingly a space occupied by the Human Rights Campaign). In the scene, a young Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie) runs out to Castro Street to talk with soon-to-be disco star Sylvester (Justin Sams), who he has become friends with. The real Cleve Jones, an activist still living in San Francisco and consultant on the project, stands off to the side and watches the moment from his own life as its recreated for the cameras.

If anyone were going to write “When We Rise,” it would be Black, who won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award in 2009 for “Milk,” but knew there were more stories to be told about the time from the early days of the gay rights movement in the 1970s up to marriage equality in the 21st Century with landmark moments like the AIDS epidemic, hate crimes, Prop 8 and transgender issues peppered in between.

While the film features familiar faces like Whoopi Goldberg, Carrie Preston, Denis O’Hare and Rosie O’Donnell, the impressive and talented young cast featured in the first two nights – McKenzie along with Jonathan Majors (Ken Jones) and Emily Skeggs (Roma Guy) – gives the miniseries an immediate grounded and heartfelt start that will draw viewers in revealing a message that is just as relevant today as it was in years past. As the story moves forward in time, Guy Pearce takes over the role of Cleve and is joined by Michael Kenneth Williams as Ken Jones and Mary-Louise Parker as Roma Guy (with Rachel Griffiths as her wife, Diane). Ken Jones and Roma Guy are also consultants on the series.

Standing on Castro Street and occasionally interrupted by San Francisco residents who stop for a hug, Black talked about how the show wound up at ABC, how he zeroed his focus in on Cleve, Ken and Roma, as well as who “When We Rise” is actually for.

Talk about getting this project off the ground. It’s been three years since you started it. 

About three years ago I heard that ABC was sniffing around some LGBT properties, and I had been thinking of doing a wider social justice or LGBT-themed piece. My issue had always been that it’s an incredible amount of work and there are plenty of networks that would jump on to do it. They spend a lot of money and they’d give you all the time you needed, but then when you’re done and it’s beautiful and says everything you wanted to say, you end up just preaching to the choir. I grew up in Texas in the military, as a Mormon kid, we weren’t allowed to have paid cable, but we did watch ABC. ABC was the channel that was family friendly, that you could get family programming on, it told the stories of families.

I went and met with the executives at the studio and the network, and I said basically, “Let me go and find a collection of stories that will tell not just the story of the modern LGBT movement but its connection to the other social justice movements.” Which is what was important to me. From the beginning I said it should be when we rise, we being the biggest part of it, and let’s tell that story to the audience that we need to tell it to the most.

The miniseries is eight hours long. How did you divide the story up so you could include as much of the history as you wanted?

There are several time periods. It leaps so the first two hours are one time period, and then each time period leaps a number of years but it’s not about understanding 1971 to 2013 from head to toe. It’s about these seminal, formative moments [and] focusing on the stories of those moments and our characters age to those moments. There is one point that leaps a little over a decade and we switch casts from our younger versions of our leads to our older versions of our leads and then we move from there again leaping, five years, ten years as we go. So the stories are centered on what they should be, the stories and what was happening and how our characters confronted those challenging moments.

Cleve Jones (portrayed by both Austin P. McKenzie in the early years and Guy Pearce as an adult) said he saw this as a gay “Roots” (the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book that ran on ABC in 1977). Do you see it that way?

No, it’s different then that, but it’s the same network stepping up in a similar way. And I can’t say enough good things about how they’ve been in the development of this project. It’s shocking. Very few notes about any kind of content, no squeamishness. Just a real desire to tell these stories in a way that’s most impactful.

You covered some of this history with “Milk,” but there are names in this that aren’t as familiar as Harvey Milk.

I didn’t want it to be the folks who we know. I think most people don’t know Cleve [Jones], they might have a bit of an idea of him from the “Milk” movie where he was a supporting part. Frankly, one of the criteria I had was I wanted people who didn’t start in the LGBT movement. Cleve started in the peace movement, Ken Jones was in the military and a part of creating equality for African Americans in this country and in the military so he came from the black civil rights movement. Roma Guy came from the women’s movement. So it was important for me to help people today understand the interconnectedness of the social justice movements. I get very frustrated when I hear young LGBT people only talk about what it is their community needs and only seem to be interested in the work that needs to be done for their community. It’s incredibly shortsighted. You need to understand the interconnectedness. I’m not making this because I’m nostalgic, I’m making this because I think we need it right now.

You know this history so well, but what was a surprise from making “When We Rise”?

The thing that surprised me most is as these three years [of producing the miniseries] have gone on, I think what we’re hearing particularly from the Republican party is so dangerous that I hope this show arms average Americans and families to have the language and to have the stories to push back against the kind of hateful, divisive speech we’ve started hearing the last three years. Part of what I’ve learned just by listening is, sadly, this is going to be more timely than I thought when I started writing it.

What is the benefit of having four different directors (Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, Thomas Schlamme and Black) for the series?

If you’re going to call a show “When We Rise” and you’re going to emphasize the we, you better do that in a writer’s room and with the directors. I’m a gay white man. I understand that experience quite well. I need it in my writers room, my directors, people of color and lesbians, straight people. In our writers room we had gay and straight, and black and white and same with the directors. Gay and straight, black and white. I think if you want authenticity, you better go to the source and say, “We’re the people who have experienced it.” So it’s been great. Gus grew up in a time, before I knew what it was to be gay. Gus was a young gay man in the seventies. He knows that better then I do. Dee Reese knows what it means to be a lesbian better then I do. And someone who’s had to live as an African-American in this time. I don’t want it to be bulls–t. I want it to be authentic.

It’s also important that we cast trans people and work with trans people to depict that experience, which is more of the last half. That came to life for Americans. The funniest thing was when we went out to Thomas Schlamme [“Manhattan,” “The West Wing”] as a director, and he said, “Oh my gosh, for the very first time in my career, I’m the diversity king as a straight man.” It was true. He’s our token straight man.

Did you think about the audience when writing this or do you keep that out of your head?

I was thinking of myself as the audience. Myself as an adolescent closeted kid growing up in a tough environment, and I thought what are the stories that would have helped me? What would I want to hear? What would I wanted my folks to see and to hear and to learn? From there I was just trying to do the best version of the truth possible. I want it to be entertaining and moving and all of that. I want American families to lean in and to say, “Oh wow, that’s in a way not so different then us.” And in other ways it’s very different but it’s lovely that that’s a part of who we are, and at the end of the day make it emotionally specific enough that anyone can relate, whether they’re gay or straight.

“When We Rise” airs at 9pm on Feb. 27, 29-31 on ABC. The documentary “When We Rise: The People Behind The Story” airs March 2 at 8pm.

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