From the Academy Award-winning duo of Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant comes a new queer history miniseries commissioned by ABC called When We Rise. The eight-hour special spans five decades of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, from the 1970s through the present day, with heavy hitters like Mary-Louise Parker, Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopie Goldberg, Guy Pearce, and Michael K. Williams in front of the camera. The series follows the story of three gay characters through the decades, and while the protagonists are based on real people, some viewers may be wondering: how accurate is When We Rise? As you can imagine from a show that's supposed to cram decades of nuanced history into eight hours, the culture that it's dramatizing is definitely painted in broad strokes.
The story is told through the eyes of Ken Jones (played in adulthood by Williams), Roma Guy (played in adulthood by Parker), and Cleve Jones (played in adulthood by Pearce), all of whom are real people who were on the front lines of early LGBTQ+ activism. Cleve is actually an old subject for Black and Van Sant, since he was also a character in their 2008 Harvey Milk biopic. He campaigned for Milk in the 1970s and witnessed his assassination, later founding the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The real Cleve Jones, pictured above with Black, worked as a historical consultant on the miniseries and spoke to The New York Times about the accuracy of When We Rise:
Mr. Jones, who is played as an adult by Guy Pearce, said that while some details in the production were not true to what he experienced, When We Rise captured the spirit and themes of the movement that has absorbed much of his life. 'It could be truthful without being accurate,' he said.
Roma Guy serves as a vehicle for the fraught intersection of feminism and queer identity. She, too, was a real-life San Francisco activist who, in the miniseries, comes to terms with her own sexuality while advocating for her lesbian friends. Her friendship with Cleve examines the dynamic between gay women and men during the AIDS crisis, spinning it favorably in this miniseries, although the full story of queer folks' fight for rights and resources at the time is more complicated.
Finally, Ken Jones represents the intersection of race and queerness, as a black gay navyman-turned-community leader. In a review of the miniseries, Variety paints him as "evidence of the kinds of bodies left behind or overlooked as the gay rights movement went mainstream," calling his character arc "the least satisfying."
In the earlier New York Times piece, gay historian Eric Marcus acknowledged that there are are going to be gaps in the storytelling of a show like this no matter what, saying:
By necessity if you’re going to tell the story of the L.G.B.T. civil rights movement, you are only going to be able to tell a slice of a slice of a slice. What invariably happens is there will be people screaming that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Well, it can’t tell the whole story.
So while the project is ambitious, common constraints we've come to know by now like the amount of time they have to tell it (eight hours), the medium on which it's airing (network TV), and the production team (white, cisgender gay men) all contribute to the ways in which it falls short. But still, it's an ambitious project that addresses some very important issues, so it's definitely worth tuning in for.
When We Rise kicks off its two-hour premiere special on Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.