TV: Why to Watch ‘When We Rise’


 9-11 ET/8-10 CT on Feb. 27 and March 1-3. (ABC)

Upcoming docudrama When We Rise will run for four nights next week, focusing on four characters and their lives throughout the LGBTQ rights movement.

While I don’t yet know whether the miniseries will do the movement justice, I know enough to be optimistic about it. Here’s why I’m tuning in, and why you should too.

It covers a lot of ground.

When We Rise will explore everything from the Stonewall Riots to the AIDS crisis all the way up to the most recent battles today. The series will explore the early gender divide in the movement and racial discrimination within the LGBTQ community. When We Rise will have a focus on the diversity within the LGBTQ community, as well as its civil rights movement.

The stories in the series don’t end with Stonewall and the AIDS pandemic though. When We Rise will also depict the story of Richard Socarides (played by Richard’s younger brother Charles Socarides), President Bill Clinton’s gay liaison, whose father Charles W. Socarides was a prominent psychiatrist that claimed homesexuality was a disorder. The series also includes the story of Cecelia Chung (Ivory Aquino), a transgender activist who is one of the founders of the Trans March (among many other things). Chung currently serves as the Senior Strategist at the Transgender Law Center and as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Between these and other characters, the series spans about 50 years. And while it’s great that When We Rise will explore so much important history, this may end up being too ambitious. Fifty years is a lot of ground to cover in just 8 hours.

It was written by the man behind the award-winning film Milk.

Gay filmmaker Dustin Lance Black wrote the eight-hour miniseries. Black also wrote Milk—based on the life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk—as well as many other LGBTQ-focused works, so When We Rise is in good hands. He used activist Cleve Jones’ memoir, also titled When We Rise, as source material; Jones is one of the primary characters in the miniseries.

It focuses on four diverse figures (as well as many other historical figures).

Rather than each part simply examining a specific part of the movement, the series is told primarily through the lens of four characters. As a result, the miniseries will be more character-focused than event-focused.

The primary figures:
  • Cleve Jones, who was mentored by Harvey Milk, was an activist throughout the AIDS pandemic. He founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a memorial for those who lost their lives during the AIDS pandemic. In 2009, he led the National March for Equality. Guy Pearce stars as Jones, with Austin McKenzie playing a younger Jones.
  • Ken Jones is an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War. He was part of the gay liberation movement in San Francisco, where he discovered the racism in the gay community. In addition to fighting the racism within the gay community, he worked to provide services for homeless youth. Ken Jones was also the first black chair of the then-called San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration Committee. Michael K. Williams stars as Ken Jones, with Jonathan Majors playing a younger Ken Jones.
  • Roma Guy, a social justice activist and women’s rights leader from rural Maine who co-founded the San Francisco Women’s Building. While Public Health Commissioner, she worked to provide access to healthcare to all in San Francisco. Mary-Louise Parker stars as Roma Guy, with Emily Skeggs playing a younger Roma Guy.
  • Diane, a social justice activist, co-founded the San Francisco Women’s Building alongside her wife Roma Guy. She was also an HIV/AIDS nurse at the San Francisco General Hospital. Rachel Griffiths stars as Diane, with Fiona Dourif playing a younger Diane.

In addition to those four main characters, When We Rise also features transgender activist Cecilia Chung (played by openly transgender actress Ivory Aquino). Guest stars include Henry Czerny, Whoopi Goldberg, Arliss Howard, Sam Jaeger, T.R. Knight, Mary McCormak, Kevin McHale, Rosie O’Donnell, Denis O’Hare, Pauley Perrette, David Hyde Pierce, Richard Schiff, Phylicia Rashad, Rob Reiner and William Sadler.

It reminds us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

Especially with the current political climate, supporting media like this is more important than ever. There is a lengthy and difficult past behind the current LGBTQ movement, and it is important to remember what we’ve fought for as we move forward. When We Rise is just one way to see how we got where we are today. It is both a celebration and a lesson of the work that has been done so far.

The  ABC series will run Feb. 27 and March 1-3 (the series will be interrupted on Feb. 28 for President Donald Trump’s address to Congress).

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