Review: When We Rise

Austin P. McKenzie as Cleve Jones in When We Rise

Monday night saw the premiere of When We Rise, an eight hour ABC miniseries detailing the gay rights movement from the perspective of four real world figures: Harvey Milk associate and AIDS Quilt creator Cleve Jones; women;s activist Roma Guy; African American organizer Ken Jones; and transgender activist Cecilia Chung. Based on the premiere, which introduces the first three individuals, When We Rise is bracing and involving, though a little given over to on the nose dialogue that spells out its Big Ideas. A certain amount of condensing and info dumping are to be expected when attempting to tell such a sprawling story; still, the slice of life approach that marked creator Dustin Lance Black and producer/director Gus Van Sant's previous collaboration, Milk, is mostly missed. I have a sneaking suspicion that as the characters age—unknown actors play the three as youngsters, with Guy Pearce, Mary Louise Parker, and Michael K. Williams taking over in later years—the quality will increase. Still, the opener has an arresting verve, and the intertwining of the different characters' storylines keeps the pace swift. There's also a terrific period soundtrack.

My opinion of the series so far might be influenced by my reading of Jones's memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, one of the production’s sources. Jones covers some of the same ground as his previous book, Stitching a Revolution, but in far more vivid detail. In the acknowledgements, Jones states that his original intent was to portray the pre-AIDS era with deeper scope than the ensuing years, and that's reflected in wonderfully evocative passages like this describing a rendezvous with a young man at Paris's famous Père Lachaise cemetery:

"He took my hand and we ran as the clouds finally burst and the rain poured down in great sheets—ran laughing past dead Jim Morrison and all the great dead French princes and philosophers... we ran and shouted as the rain soaked our clothes and hair and filled our shoes, past Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and dear dead Oscar Wilde, 'Au revoir, Mesdames!' and burst out through the gates of the now silent cemetery onto the traffic-loud and bustling streets of Paris."

Along with Jones's romantic and sexually explicit reminisces there are grimmer experiences: the shocking murder of Harvey Milk and the intense White Night riot that followed; the devastating loss of AIDS and the government's callous lack of response to it. Jones brings the people and details of these now historic events to life in a way that makes for compelling reading. As the book progresses further into the AIDS years, the writing gets less poetic and more plainly factual. Maybe someday Jones will write a follow-up that delves deeper into those events, which include the fight for marriage equality. In this day and age, these stories of LGBT activists like Cleve Jones are as inspiring and relevant as ever. They're good reminders that injustice is invariably countered by brave men and women willing to fight against it.

The real Jones

When We Rise airs March 1–3 at 9 PM on ABC. The series is also streaming on abc.com.