The simple description of “When We Rise” is that it’s a gay “Roots” – a sprawling look at the gay liberation movement in the U.S. during the past five decades, spread over eight hours, featuring an abundance of talent, occasionally too earnest, at times heartbreaking, and pretty much always eminently watchable.
And just as one didn’t have to be black to appreciate “Roots,” one does not have to be LGBTQ to enjoy “When We Rise.” For those under a certain age it’s likely to be a well-dramatized history lesson; for those over that age it’s a flashback look at modern times.
Most importantly it is always fully human. Creator-writer Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for the screenplay to “Milk,” can’t cover the entirety of his subject, obviously. So he follows three real individuals as their stories progress from the early ‘70s; each is played by two actors, younger in the first two parts, older in the last two.
There’s Cleve Jones (Austin P. Mackenzie, then Guy Pearce), a suburban kid who moves to San Francisco to exult in a new lifestyle, eventually becoming a major activist; Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs/Mary Louise Parker), a closeted lesbian who moves to the Bay area to work with the National Organization for Women; and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors/Michael K. Williams), a black Vietnam veteran who also finds his true self in San Francisco.
Black’s screenplay touches on historic moments but more importantly highlights tensions within the nascent movement – the initial distrust of gays and lesbians, of lesbians and feminists, the trials of trying to live within straight society, the idea of raising kids, the scourge of AIDS. At times Black gets on a soapbox, at times – especially with AIDS – things seem unbearably bleak.
But the human spirit pushes on. “When We Rise” is a chronicle of social evolution, of what would have once been considered radical change happening in mere decades, of understanding and perseverance, and yes, of doltish obstruction, violence and prejudice. That it is being shown on broadcast television during prime time is an achievement on its own. In these times, that is something worth relishing.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘When We Rise’
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