Review: ‘When We Rise’ Is A Timely Reminder Of The Power Of LGBT Activism

This is a tapestry of stories that needed to be told.

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The modern gay rights movement is nearly 50 years old, and we’ll likely see a lot more about it in the lead-up to the golden anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. But for now, getting an early jump on all that, is When We Rise: a new four-part miniseries premiering on SBS this weekend. Created by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black When We Rise follows the life of AIDS and LGBTIQ activist Cleve Jones (played by Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce) and those that surrounded him across his four decades of queer activism based predominantly around San Francisco.

Partially inspired by Jones’ book When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, the story is told by directors Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, Thomas Schlamme and Black himself. They syphon through history to paint a portrait of the fights, the trials, the successes, the devastations, and the miracles that have brought LGBTIQ rights and representation to where they are today. Exclusively charting the US west coast efforts, When We Rise begins with the emboldening of queer folk after news of the Stonewall in New York City, through to the times of Harvey Milk, the AIDS epidemic, the Clinton administration, and the recent efforts for same-sex marriage rights.

It’s a polished and handsomely produced affair featuring a swathe of recognisable names and faces like Rachel Griffiths, Marie-Louise Parker, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Carrie Preston, Michael K. Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Kevin McHale, and David Hyde Pierce portraying famous and not-so-famous personalities across the generations of the movement. Unfortunately the episodes suffer from a case of diminishing returns. Its climactic segment directed by Black descends a bit too far into caricature of personalities like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Maggie Gallagher as well as an overuse of archival footage. But over its five-and-a-half hours, it’s hard to deny the series’ impact. It made me cry, of course, but not as much as it made me beam with pride about those who came before me.

Common Threads

Though I used the phrase “paint a portrait” before, it’s probably more appropriate to say this series weaves a tapestry; Cleve Jones’ most famous addition to the queer cannon was the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The large-scale community arts project — the largest in the world — was conceived by Jones in 1987 as a means of honouring those who had died of AIDS and played a significant part in the changing attitudes towards LGBTIQ people in America following subsequent governments who did little to empathise with the victims or find a cure.

The quilt plays a significant part in When We Rise, too. But while it becomes a prominent part of the narrative — particularly when visited by the Clintons in 1996 (with Guy Pearce awkwardly Forrest Gump-ed into the footage) — its presence highlights in even greater clarity the number of queer stories that have gone untold. Most of the almost 100,000 names immortalised on the 54-tonne quilt are strangers to us. We know Peter Allen or Rock Hudson, but there are so many anonymous men and women lost amid the sea of devastation. The miniseries attempts to put a face to the names of at least some of them and others who had a part in the monumental fight for equality.

Scrawling through the online database of the quilt — around 6,000 panels (each panel representing eight or more AIDS victims) are available to be viewed at the AIDS Quilt Touch — and searching the crowds and the side-stories of When We Rise show just how many people stories there are yet to be told. This is where Black’s series works best: putting a spotlight, however minor, on some of these names.

I relished the appearance of disco superstar Sylvester in the early ‘70s-set episodes performing classic hits like ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and now I wonder why we’ve never had a biopic of him. The costumes alone would be Oscar-worthy! A sniffled my way through Cleve singing Liza Minnelli’s ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret on the deathbed of his musical best friend, Marvin Feldman. The possibilities are endless and I can only hope other filmmakers pull on the threads of queer history and find other stories worth telling.

A History On Screen

When We Rise only has four 80-minute episodes to work with and is not a monolithic encyclopedia of the last 50 years, but it does uses its time wisely. Harvey Milk, for instance, is seen briefly in When We Rise, but Black has already told his story (and won an Academy Award, thanking Cleve Jones in the process). Instead we focus on the likes of Jones and Roma Guy.

Documentaries like How to Survive a Plague and the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt delved deeper into their 1980s queer activism, allowing When We Rise to instead spend time focusing on the little-seen battles of San Francisco’s lesbian community and the anger over Bill Clinton’s presidential cowardice.

I was surprised to learn this was the first time Ken Jones had been seen on-screen considering his incredible story. Jones is as an African American navy soldier of the Vietnam War who took on activism to fight the spread of HIV in black communities before turning to sexually-inclusive spirituality. His final moment of discovering the name of his former lover at the Vietnam War Memorial on the eve of marriage equality is something truly beautiful. And how many Cecilia Chungs are there in the world? Chung is a Hong Kong-born trans woman who made ends meet in a food kitchen before working her way up to a role on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Their stories deserve to be better known and at least now they now have a place on screen forever.

Of course, When We Rise parallels another AIDS-era civil rights drama, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. That play was made into a TV film in 2014 with Mark Ruffalo and charts a near-identical story albeit from the opposite coast. They each suffer from primary storytellers — Ryan Murphy in the case of Normal Heart — that occasionally reach too broadly, but which nonetheless earn their stripes telling stories of important people who deserve to be commemorated on film.

There is a moment in episode three of When We Rise where Cleve suggests to a younger reporter that he is a part of the first generation of LGBTIQ people who don’t have to fight for anything. It’s symbolic then that this series comes at a rather pertinent time of protest across the globe.

The series ends with a title card noting that our long-fought rights are under threat once more, but anybody who knows anything about queer history knows that it’s unlikely to ever not be so. This series acts as a timely reminder to never be complacent. The power of the rally cry is great and it should never be lost or forgotten.

WHEN WE RISE - "When We Rise" is written and created by Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. This mini-series event chronicles the real-life personal and political struggles, set-backs and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. Civil Rights movement from its turbulent infancy in the 20th century to the once unfathomable successes of today. (ABC/Eike Schroter) AUSTIN P. MCKENZIE

When We Rise premieres on SBS this Saturday March 11 at 8.30pm. You can watch the full series on SBS On Demand now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.