You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ABC’s ‘When We Rise’

An eight-hour event series recreates the history the gay rights movement with wildly uneven results

Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ivory Aquino, Austin McKenzie, Emily Skeggs, Jonathan Majors, Fiona Dourif

The mere existence of “When We Rise” is almost virtue enough. But in terms of tone and execution, the four-part event series from ABC is wildly uneven, crossing from moving stories of romance under oppression to retellings of history that are so broadly pitched — and with such bad wigs! — that they’re too after-school special to be truly affecting. Still, the fact that an eight-hour educational reconstruction of the gay rights movement is taking up primetime real estate on a broadcast network is evidence of a revolution — a still-unfolding one, to be sure, but one that has transformed the social fabric of this nation. In just 50 years, America has gone from a land where homosexuality was an illness treated by psychologists with lobotomies and electroshock treatment to one where gay marriage is the law of the land.

When We Rise” is an attempt to explain how that happened, from 1972 to 2013. Eight hours is not much time to cover so much ground, but then again, the series seems to be designed as a relatively superficial overview of the gay rights movement, focusing less on what happened and more on how it continues to be relevant. Despite the presence of talented performers like Michael Kenneth Williams, Guy Pearce, and Mary-Louise Parker, “When We Rise” shines when it focuses on youth — the activists who were young in the ’70s, the young men dying of AIDS in the ’80s, the confused kids who grew up with two moms in the ’90s, and the young queer millennials who came of age in a world where much more was possible than just a few years before.

The organizing spine of “When We Rise” are the interweaving stories of three activists in San Francisco, who variously devoted their lives to (and were ravaged by) the cause. One is Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs in her youth, and Parker as an adult), a feminist activist who discovers her own sexuality in the process of agitating for the rights of her friends who are lesbians. (Skeggs, who was nominated for a Tony for her role as Medium Alison in “Fun Home,” brings a nervous, idealistic energy to the role that is just as captivating onscreen as it was in the musical; the character’s transition to Parker, a very dissimilar actress in terms of appearance and energy, is extremely jarring.) Roma ends up making a fragile alliance with Cleve Jones (youth, Austin P. McKenzie; adult, Pearce), a gay teenager barely surviving on the streets of San Francisco. Jones would go on to become one of the gay rights’ movement’s biggest figures — and indeed, he is a familiar character for “When We Rise” writer Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant, who told the story of Harvey Milk through his eyes in their film “Milk” (Jones was played by Emile Hirsch in the film). In their first joint effort, Roma’s feminist protestors, rallying against an unlawful arrest, are joined by Cleve’s gay male friends, creating a group much bigger than the organizers believed possible. It’s a beautiful moment — brought quickly to an end by the police, who teargas the protestors.

The third protagonist is Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Williams), a black Vietnam navy veteran who is both the most tragic figure in the story and the most alienated — from the movement and from the other “characters.” His race cuts him off from the mainstream gay movement brewing in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco; his sexuality cuts him off from other veterans and the black community. Despite all of this, he manages to be an extraordinary and compassionate man, struggling through hardships that are so numerous they become difficult to process. His arc is the least satisfying, and it may be that Williams, Black, and Van Sant produce that on purpose; Ken is evidence of the kinds of bodies left behind or overlooked as the gay rights movement went mainstream.

The first few hours of “When We Rise” — before the shift to “adult” actors — are the most resonant. With so much time at its disposal, the series can use long scenes to depict just how hostile San Francisco’s institutions were to the gay community before grassroots protests, organized volunteers, and a coalition of movements could come together to assert their identity (what Cleve calls “all the us-es”). But just as they begin to bask in the glow of marginal acceptance, men start to get sick — slowly, and then all at once. Cleve and Roma, who had transitioned to political activism, find themselves back to fighting for their lives; in a sad but beautiful karmic loop, the men who showed up for women’s rights end up dying in AIDS wards nursed by the women they fought for. Ken, who had won a hard-earned enclave of peace, ends up bereaved, homeless, and an addict. In the ‘90s, this makes way for a digression about President Clinton’s strained relationship with the gay community. But as important as these stories are, they are not well-suited to this rushed history; the AIDS plague alone has inspired some of the finest works of fiction of our era.

Instead what “When We Rise” is best at demonstrating — and most pointedly demonstrating, for a movement that has picked up its protest signs again — is how the day-to-day grind of change really works, for the people on the front lines. In the midst of seemingly endless prejudice and the predictable human struggles to find love, create families, and pay rent are the demands of revolution: coalitions, alliances, staying on-message — and protesting, seemingly every other day. Cleve cherishes the bullhorn given to him by Harvey Milk; Roma pitches riotous arguments in meetings with feminists and lesbians and gay leaders about what to prioritize; and after Ken opens up a drop-in soup kitchen for gay teens, he ends up owing his life to a trans runaway whom he mentors. In the young activists’ shared desperation are the seedlings of a nationwide movement. “When We Rise” notes the many fronts on which such a movement has to fight — the internal conflict of coming out, the external struggle against blatant oppression and bigotry, and most unromantically, the inter-movement struggles. It takes Ken — a man who gave years of his life, voluntarily, to military service in Vietnam — decades to find a home in the gay movement, and it’s only through a church led by a black pastor that chooses to radically open its arms to any and all expressions of sexuality and identity.

And in another nod to contemporary politics, “When We Rise” champions intersectionality (and tries very hard to embody it, in its storytelling). Indeed, it is an unsatisfying story precisely because of the many loose ends and unfinished fights; but the arc of its history is a case study in how movements towards justice that cut out or silence a marginalized minority are doomed to fail — whether that is the National Organization for Women’s sidelining of lesbians, the Castro’s lack of a home for black gay men, the inability of ACT UP and the Names Project to get along, and the underreported contributions of trans people of color to the ongoing movement. The final title card of the series reads, “… today, violence against LGBT people as well as racial, religious, and ethnic minorities is on the rise across the United States. One struggle. One fight.”

“When We Rise” is not exactly brilliantly rendered, despite its prestigious pedigree. But it is a bottled teachable moment for queer history — re-enacting both the bigotry and violence of this era as well as its momentary successes. The natural end for this series is a long life of being shown in classrooms when a substitute teacher can’t find a lesson plan. It will probably provoke the same snickers that any historical document produces in a classroom of kids — That hair! The terrible CGI that splices the lead actors into historical footage! — but what matters is that it is a historical document of this struggle. “When We Rise” makes the gay rights movement into something that is such a part of our history that schoolkids can get bored by it; a backhanded victory, but a real one, too.

TV Review: ABC's 'When We Rise'

Event Series, 8 episodes (8 reviewed): ABC, Mon. Feb. 27, 9 p.m. 120 min.

Crew: Executive producers: Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant, Laurence Mark, Bruce Cohen

Cast: Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ivory Aquino, Austin McKenzie, Emily Skeggs, Jonathan Majors, Fiona Dourif

More TV

  • MMA Alters Faces of Asia Sports

    MMA Alters Faces of Asian Sports Broadcasting

    Bruce Lee was ahead of the curve by about four decades when he predicted back in the early 1970s that combat sports would one day take the world by storm. Hong Kong’s favorite son had encouraged his own students to mix up the styles of martial arts they were being trained in — to combine kung fu [...]

  • Variety Kit Harington Game of Thrones

    Kit Harington on How 'Game of Thrones' Mirrors Real-World Politics

    In Variety‘s March 19 cover story, Kit Harington opens up about the final season of “Game of Thrones” and growing into adulthood as part of the biggest show on television. In a conversation in London in December, Harington opened up about the similarities between the series’ politics and our own. “I think it’s always been about [...]

  • Chris O'Dowd

    TV News Roundup: Chris O'Dowd to Star in 'Twilight Zone' Episode

    In today’s roundup, The CW has released two clips from the upcoming “Riverdale” special “Heathers: The Musical,” and Chris O’Dowd will star in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  CASTING More Reviews Video Game Review: 'The Division 2' Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' Chris O’Dowd will star in CBS All Access’ rebooted [...]

  • Kevin Tsujihara

    Kevin Tsujihara's Ouster Kicks Off a Week of Major Disruption in the Media Business

    The sudden ouster of Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara kicked off what is likely to go down as one of the most extraordinary weeks in Hollywood history, spelling enormous turmoil and transition across the media landscape. In addition to the news about Tsujihara, which comes amid a wider shake-up of leadership at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, [...]

  • Wendy Williams Sober Living House

    Wendy Williams Reveals She's Been Staying in a Sober-Living House

    Wendy Williams, during an emotional monologue on her talk show on Tuesday, revealed through tears that she has been staying at a sober-living house. “So you know me for being a very open and truthful person,” she began the segment on “The Wendy Williams Show,” fighting through tears. “And I’ve got more to the story [...]

  • Hong Kong Industry Executives Seek Clarity

    FilMart: Hong Kong Industry Executives Plead for Clarity on Mainland Chinese Tax Policies

    At a time of heightened scrutiny of tax affairs in China’s entertainment sector, even industry veterans in Hong Kong are struggling to figure out how to operate in the new financial environment and pleading for more clarity from the Chinese government. Hong Kong produces about 60 films a year, three-quarters of which are typically co-productions [...]

  • Michael Jackson R Kelly

    'Leaving Neverland,' 'Surviving R. Kelly' Composers on How They Scored Sexual Abuse Docs

    How do you put music to child sexual abuse — especially if the accused predators are musical icons? That’s the challenge composers Chad Hobson and Nathan Matthew David faced as they scored HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” respectively. The documentaries are built around interviews with the alleged victims of Michael Jackson (two [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content