When We Rise

Aired On: ABC

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                When I saw promos for the ABC miniseries, When We Rise, I was intrigued.  Based on Gay Rights Activist Cleve Jonesí memoirs, the series chronicles the on-going struggle of the LGBTQ community for equality.  Airing over four days, the series boasted an incredible cast and an important look at the decades-long history of the Gay Rights Movement and the constant setbacks that have and continue to plague it to this day.  I was definitely going to check this one out.

                The series begins with Guy Pearce as Cleve Jones, telling a young man the origin of his life as an activist.  Born to a father who was a practicing psychiatrist and a mother who was a Vietnam War protestor and activist, a young Cleve (Austin P. McKenzie) realizes he is looked upon as an outcast.  A homosexual, he discovers that members of his fatherís field view his love for men as a disease, curable through electroshock therapy and/or lobotomy.  After revealing his sexuality to his parents, Cleve finds he can no longer live under the roof of a parent who believes him to be psychologically ill.  He heads to San Francisco, California, in search of a place where he can be free to be who he is.

                Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs) is finishing up her stint as a Peace Corps member in Africa.  She leaves behind Diane (Fiona Dourif) a woman she had a lesbian relationship with.  Upon returning to the states, Roma becomes involved with NOW, an organization fighting for Women's Equality and moves to San Francisco.  Unfortunately, the leadership of NOW is not a supporter of homosexuality.  At first, Roma denies that she is a lesbian, but as time moves on, she becomes dissatisfied with NOW and the way it constantly ignores how homosexual women are treated.

                Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) is serving aboard a Navy battleship during the Vietnam War when he falls in love with a fellow sailor.  After his loverís unfortunate death, Ken is offered a new job with the Navy in San Francisco, teaching tolerance and redirecting prejudiced behavior amongst his officers and peers.  He finds the work less than satisfying due to the need to hide who he really is.  He frequents the Castro District in search of answers as to what he should do with his life.

                Eventually, Cleve, Roma and Ken meet, fighting for equal rights for gays and lesbians.  The road is rocky and gay men and lesbians donít want to work together at first, but they find a common ground in electing gay politician Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in District 5 and fighting Proposition 6, which would ban gays and lesbians from working in Californiaís public schools.  As time wears on, Roma and Ken find love while Cleve works for Milk.  Romaís ex-girlfriend Diane, has returned from Africa and joins the movement.  She tells Roma she wants to have a baby and is lucky enough to find a donor and have the backdoor procedure work on the first try.  Things are looking up in the community, but when Milk and the mayor are assassinated, it is a major blow to the Gay Rights Movement.

                The next blow comes in the form of AIDS.  The miniseries documents the rise of the epidemic, the effects on the community in San Francisco and the fight for better health care and help in fighting the epidemic.  Seen as a homosexual disease, the epidemic further erodes the fight for gay equality.  The epidemic hits home for Cleve who loses many friends from the disease.  Ken and his lover Richard (Sam Jaeger) are diagnosed with the disease and find themselves fighting a losing battle as the search for even a valid treatment crawls.  Diane, a nurse in the local hospital, begins working with AIDS patients and asks Roma for help in the form of volunteers from the Womenís Building.  Even Cleve finds himself battling the disease.  As more and more people in the community die, Gay Rights Activists struggle for the disease and the dead and dying to be recognized by the United States Government.  A revolutionary new treatment is born and Cleve and Ken find a reprieve, but the loss of loved ones has taken its toll on Ken who sinks deep into depression, despair and addiction.

                And even as this new and happy development in the homosexual community takes place, there are still other setbacks.  Cleve finds he is unable to adopt a child due to his HIV status.  Roma and Diane are raising their daughter as a married couple, but canít actually get married, although they are in every sense of the word.  The government acknowledges that homosexuals are productive members of society and the military, but asks them to hide who they are through Don't Ask Don't Tell.  And so, there is more work to do, culminating in the rights for gay marriage.  But the struggle seems to never be over as the fight must go all the way to the US Supreme Court and still, there are some who would see gay rights taken away.

                When We Rise is an incredibly moving and extremely accurate portrayal of the fight for LGBTQ Equality.  One can tell that the actors truly believed in this project and put their all into their portrayals.  There are some incredible performances here from Emily Skeggs, Austin P. McKenzie, Jonathan Majors, Guy Pearce, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ivory Aquino and more.  Also notable are performances by Mary Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopie Goldberg, Rafael de la Fuente, Fiona Dourif and Sam Jaeger.

                This story is not for the faint of heart Ė this is an incredibly emotional and often violent journey as we realize just how dangerous it was and still often is to come out as a gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender individual.  At one time, gay men were openly beaten in the streets by the very same police who were supposed to be protecting them.  Peaceful demonstrations, as can happen with any emotionally charged rights march, often turned violent as others, seeking to rid themselves of the freaks and godless promoted violence. 

                An educational experience, When We Rise tells the story of those incredibly strong individuals who risked so much over the span of decades so that other generations might enjoy equality.  We learn just how ignorant some people can be, but we also see many acts of love an acceptance amongst the members of the community, family and populace.  We learn about the AIDS virus, how it spread so quickly through the gay community and how lack of knowledge and lack of commitment caused so many to die before proper research could bring about the cocktail that would save so many lives. We learn the painful struggle for simple rights like the ability to walk down the street without the threat of being targeted for your sexuality, the ability to serve in the military or any other job for that matter, the ability to get married, the ability to have children, to use the bathroom of the gender you associate with Ė things heterosexuals take for granted.  But most of all, we learn about the fight for acceptance and the understanding that being a member of the LGBTQ community is not a choice, but something you are born with.

                When We Rise will not be easy for some to watch.  For those who have been through the struggles, it wonít be easy to be reminded of the pain, but one will take heart in the acknowledgement of the struggle.  For the younger generations, watching this miniseries will be a hard lesson in what those who came before them had to do to survive, much less to be considered as equals.  For those who have issues accepting homosexuals as equals, this will be difficult, but perhaps enlightening.  But no matter who you are, When We Rise is a must see for all, as a history lesson, as a monument to strength and courage and as a lesson in tolerance and acceptance.  In this time of uncertainty, I further urge you whether you are straight or gay to see When We Rise so that the fight for equality will not be forgotten and the rights that heterosexuals have taken for granted for so long and have been so recently granted to others never disappear for any one group.


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