If you tune in to ABC at any point during prime time the week of Feb. 27, chances are you’ll come across When We Rise, Dustin Lance Black’s epic, star-studded gay-rights miniseries. Airing from 9 to 11 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, When We Rise tells the story of the birth of the LGBTQ movement in the early 1970s, the AIDS crisis, and the contemporary fight for marriage equality through the experiences of three activists: Roma Guy, Cleve Jones, and Ken Jones. I talked to Black, who won the 2009 Oscar for best original screenplay for Milk, at January’s Television Critics Association gathering.
Who did you make this show for?
I made Milk very much for myself. As a young man, I’d never heard of Harvey Milk, and it would have been very helpful for me to know about someone like that.
I wrote this show for my family. Most of my family lives in the South, from Texas to Arkansas to Louisiana. They’re mostly conservative, religious, and I grew up in a military home. I thought doing this kind of show on ABC, was an opportunity to finally introduce my LGBT family to my birth family, and to speak that common language. I wanted to make it at ABC, because I knew there was an opportunity to reach an audience that needs to hear it.
What was the most challenging part of the story to tell? The beginning, because many of us don’t know what happened 40 years ago, or the more recent events where there’s more familiarity?
I certainly had to do more research for the earlier episodes; the last two hours I was there for much of that, because I was a part of the case and a part of the movement that got us to the Supreme Court. But I wasn’t born in the first two episodes, so I had to ask a lot of questions. Probably the most difficult part was just figuring out who to portray. I wanted most of those main characters to still be alive, because I want this to be an inspirational story, and I wanted people who had been active in the movement for that great, expansive time—which is a rarity.
You also chose people who had been active in another civil rights struggle. Why?
Because we stand on the shoulders of our brothers and sisters from the black civil rights movement and certainly from the women’s movement. I mean, the LGBT movement springs from the feminist movement, doesn’t it? The men in the early Gay Liberation Front knew that they had to be feminist; they understood that gender ought not determine destiny. That meant one thing for the feminist movement, but for gay men it meant they might have a chance to love who they choose. These connections are what made us powerful—understanding that we have to walk hand in hand with other social justice movements is how we’ve been powerful in the past. It’s a lesson we’ve lost. By looking at history through people who never lost their passion for other civil rights movements, LGBT people who still work for others—I hope folks understand how necessary it is that we reconnect with our brothers and sisters in other movements.
In the early stories, set in the 1970s and early ’80s, we see characters experiment with nonmonogamy, but they all seem to come back to monogamy. Was that an editorial decision or something that ABC required?
No, and they don’t all come back to it, do they? I mean, Cleve doesn’t. He has one relationship and then he’s single. We don’t go into his dating life much, but it was an active one, and folks can read his book. I think a lot of young people will look at the fight for marriage equality, and they’ll call it heteronormative. And I say to them: Well, that might be how it seems to you now, but you have to understand what so many gay men went through in a plague, and the value they started to see in having one strong partner to share that fight with. What they learned they were missing when that partner died and they lost their home, they didn’t have the same protections that a straight couple would have, Social Security benefits—none of that. So you start to see why gay and lesbian people started to fight for marriage equality—people like Ken and like Cleve and like Roma, all of whom were against marriage and who eventually came around to see that there is a value there. But no one’s saying they have to get married. I won’t ruin the ending, but not everybody gets married. That’s not how it ends.
I understand why you went with these three people; it’s very powerful. But there’s almost a sense in which you valorize that generation. At the beginning you see them doing what all young people do: trashing the people who came before them. No, try this!
Oh, it comes full circle, baby. You get a whole new cast of young people come in, and they find our leads dusty. It is a challenge that both sides have to rise to, to work together.
I was glad to see you show that just because you’re an activist, that doesn’t mean everyone is with you.
One of the great lessons of any social justice movement is that you’re going to face the most adversity from your own. Because we’re all moving through the dark, aren’t we? We’re feeling our way through it, and we all have different ideas, and they often don’t match up. You feel like you’re supposed to be struggling against this often unseen, unknown enemy of equality—but who you’re actually dealing with day to day are your own. Get ready to scrap.
Have you spent time with activists?
I stepped away from filmmaking for four years to fight for marriage equality. All I did was work with activists and political folks and lawyers. They’re a scrappy bunch, but we need them more now than ever. It’s not always easy. Cleve Jones chews me out all the time when he thinks I’ve gotten something wrong. But I like that debate.
What was the greatest challenge in creating the show?
This show took four years to make. It’s been exhausting work, and it’s not exactly been good for my bank account, I’ll tell you that. On an ABC network budget, we had to basically produce four period-piece feature films over the course of a few months. It is likely the toughest, most exhausting, brutal work I’ll ever do in my life—and nothing will ever be as rewarding.
February seems like an odd time to air it. Isn’t the rule that gay things come out in June?
Oh yeah, we’re going to break some rules here, people. What we want is eyes. This was never made for just a gay audience or just a progressive audience. It’s why it focuses on universal themes of family, the makeshift families we create with our friends—and for some, even the families they make when they’re married. It should be February; this is when most people are watching television. It’s a great honor that ABC has given us the slot that they have.
I understand why someone like me will watch When We Rise: This is my history, my story. Why will conservatives watch?
Because everybody knows gay people. That’s what we found in the marriage equality fight. I think there are far more diversity-curious conservatives than you think—who might vote one way because they just don’t know yet how that affects some of the people they love. I think you’d be surprised how many of them would tune in out of curiosity, and I hope they get hooked.