“This is what it feels like to do something new, OK?” scolds Cleve Jones, the legendary LGBTQ and labor activist, in the final installment of ABC’s four-part miniseries When We Rise, which airs Friday. “It’s lonely, and it’s tough, and nobody believes in you until after you’ve succeeded. You need to learn that.”
Jones, at this point in the four-decade epic a wizened organizer, is lecturing a crew of younger newbies who have gathered in his Palm Springs, Florida, home to help plan the 2011 National Equality March. (This came just after some contentious debate about the value of including an emerging artist called Lady Gaga on the speech docket—a choice that, speaking as someone in attendance, was deeply correct. “President Obama, ARE YOU LISTENING!?!”) But Jones’ reflection on the thanklessness of activism might offer some comfort to When We Rise creator Dustin Lance Black: His eight-hour, prime-time portrait of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in America has been a ratings disappointment and, artistically speaking … the girl has problems.
Most of these emerge from the insane scope of the project and its uncomfortable confinement in a rather old-fashioned network TV format. (Not to mention a steady stream of rough writing—I don’t think I have ever seesawed so much between tears at a moving scene to groans when someone basically looks at the camera, or worse, does a voiceover, to tell us what the scene means … cut to commercial.) Black tracks three San Francisco–based figures—Jones, Roma Guy, and Ken Jones—from the 1970s through 2013 (employing two sets of actors), attempting to use their often distractingly idiosyncratic stories to trace the LGBTQ movement through gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, DADT/DOMA, and our recent marriage equality success. Sometimes this tack succeeds powerfully—as when Cleve attempts to adopt an abandoned baby only to have it stripped from his arms due to a lack of such rights for gays, or similarly, when the family of Ken’s just-deceased partner shows up to kick him out of the home they’ve shared for years. But more often, the very personal narratives—like Guy’s struggles with an awful (and awfully acted) teenage daughter or Ken’s grappling with organized religion—get in the way of what, as I understand it, was the point of the show: to impress nonqueer, even conservative, Americans with the proud and difficult history of our people.
It’s up for debate whether Black’s ambitious project hit that mark. The time investment is so steep, the genre so unstable (documentary, melodrama, biopic, and after-school special all dance together in this bar), and the content so muddled with cameos and asides, that I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to watch without any previous exposure to queer history. Maybe it would be immersive and thrilling; complete disorientation is also possible. For my part, much of the pleasure came from simply recognizing figures (Peter Staley!) and moments (Maggie Gallagher’s bare feet at the Prop. 8 trial!) as they hurried, often barely identified, across the frame. But, like Cleve said, trying something new is lonely and tough, and we should ultimately be grateful that Black—currently our most prominent bard—dedicated so much time and passion to the attempt.
With that in mind, I think it’s worth highlighting a few things that When We Rise does really well—not only to cheerlead, but also in the genuine hopes that you, straight or queer, might give it a chance when you’ve got a workday’s worth of couch time to spare.
It’s a real attempt at intersectional storytelling
Cleve Jones is a white gay man with radical politics and, eventually, a positive HIV diagnosis. Ken Jones, also HIV-positive, is a gay black Navy veteran stubborn in his attachment to Christianity and, after the loss of his lover and home, a man fighting addiction. Roma Guy is a white lesbian radical feminist suspicious of marriage and invested in political causes that go far beyond LGBTQ issues. Having these three people in one miniseries—and highlighting all these aspects of their lives—would be an impressive step forward in storytelling that coveys the range of queer experience. But Black didn’t stop there: When We Rise is populated with all manner of other types, from drag queens and butch dykes to transgender rabble-rousers and stuffy corporate gays. What’s more, these folks come from across ethnicities and backgrounds. You can criticize this series for a host of failings, but intersectionality isn’t one. In fact, you get the sense that perhaps some of the messiness of the thing stems from going too far in this direction, attempting to represent too many experiences in one artwork. But, in a world where the white gay male perspective still takes up too much of the representational air, I’m not going to complain.
It spills all the tea
There were moments during When We Rise where I was shocked by the details and themes Black chose to represent, especially considering that at least some straight eyes were watching. (And no, I’m not just talking about nonmonogamy and bathhouses.) Internecine queer debates are my personal faves but you don’t usually expect to see, for example, lesbian separatist philosophy, the often strained relationship between lesbians and gay men, or the corporate takeover of the movement during the 1990s treated with complexity on-screen. (In fact, Black’s portrayal of lesbian culture and thought, especially in the “Lavender Menace” zap era, is the most nuanced popular treatment this gay boy has ever seen.) Same goes for the uniquely fraught intersection of gayness and masculinity in the black community or the sometimes-cold calculations behind the cozy “love is love” façade of the marriage equality movement—these are all real, difficult stories to tell, and I am slightly awestruck that Black took the risk of trying to share them at all.
It embraces the unique complexity of the LGBTQ civil rights movement
One of the more moving moments in When We Rise—and in history—is Cleve’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, the massive, still-growing collection of panels dedicated to those taken by the plague. Historians of LGBTQ life will tell you that our movement is a particularly difficult one to narrate, because—Stonewall birthplace mythology aside—it has always been disparate and slapdash, comprising individuals and organizations with different goals and backgrounds working together (and at cross purposes) in cities across the country. Though Black tried to ground his take in San Francisco, he couldn’t help but take day trips to New York; Washington, D.C.; Sacramento, California; and many other sites; and his core cast of Virgils are regularly interrupted by other players, many of them with their own prime-time-worthy stories. Looked at from a distance, his miniseries takes on the quality of a quilt: the overall effect is impressive—there’s just so much stuff! But, upon closer inspection, the execution of the individual panels varies widely.
As a work of narrative representation, When We Rise is undeniably scattered. But, taken as a simulacrum of the LGBTQ civil rights struggle in America, its messiness is actually apropos. We are a beautifully messy people, our history a tangle of mistakes and triumphs, great leaps forward and devastating knocks back. As we head into a political era shimmering with adversity, perhaps it’s good to be reminded that our story has never been neat. We may experience stumbles in the coming years, but we will surely rise again.