'When We Rise' Never Quite Stands Up

The miniseries’ depiction of the HIV/AIDS crisis doesn’t do justice to the bravery, imagination, and hard work that went into making that progress a reality

The most resonant scenes in When We Rise (ABC), the new miniseries chronicling gay progress in America, take place four decades ago. A trio of young San Franciscans — all recent transplants from elsewhere — resolve to build the city they had imagined was waiting for them. Forget the Bay’s famous fog; a few years after the Summer of Love, Otherness was still relentlessly pursued by storm clouds of violence and the threat thereof. But it’s not the beatings by police and strangers that stand out. Rather, it’s the staggering creativity that early-20-something activists Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie), Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs), and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) harness in protesting badged persecution, organizing women’s rights protests, and bitterly yet thoughtfully debating with allies about the best way forward. The urgency of resistance leaps out like a dolphin from the sea — as does the thrill of homecoming when the three characters discover with the rest of their tribe that there is a place they can call their own after all.

Based on the careers and families of those living personages, When We Rise aspires to be the Roots of LGBTQ history. Debuting tonight (Monday, February 27), the four-part, eight-hour project is both socially important and endlessly frustrating. No miniseries could hope to encompass the diversity of queer existence of the past half-century, but writer Dustin Lance Black’s decision to retell the most familiar version of gay activism squanders the opportunity to introduce a fresh way of seeing what many viewers already know and/or have lived through. Black, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for penning the biopic Milk, returns to the Castro to exhaustively (and exhaustingly) detail the fight for gay equality from the perspective of Cleve Jones, a Harvey Milk protégé and the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. His POV necessarily frames LGBTQ progress as a mostly white, largely cis-male, San Francisco–centric, legally focused, politically assimilationist endeavor — which would be fine if When We Rise didn’t trumpet itself as the history, rather than a history, of gay advancement.

Cleve, Roma, and Ken’s stories begin in 1972, a year before homosexuality was finally ruled not a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. (Like so many milestones, including Stonewall and the killing of Matthew Shepard, this landmark event is only noted in passing.) The trio are refugees within their homeland, in search of safe spaces and a sense of purpose. Even as he’s fighting for subsistence, peacenik Cleve looks for his next big battle as the Vietnam War comes to a close. Roma, branded a “Lavender Menace” by the homophobic factions of the National Organization for Women (NOW), gradually embraces a radical feminist agenda. Lost without the hypermasculine black-power sermons of his youth, Navy veteran Ken is the most reluctant to identify with yet another marginalized group — living under segregation is tough enough. In one of the most heartening moments of the miniseries, a group of men, led by an older drag queen, lock arms with one another and playfully yet forcefully sing “God Save the Queen” as the police attempt to drag them to jail. Ken disavows any association with them that night — but his reunion with his courage isn’t far away.

The three don’t meet one another until the end of Part One, so the parallel storylines mostly just flap in the breeze, waiting for a current to bring them together. Though it’s full of passé debates about the roles of separatism, monogamy, and parenthood in LGBTQ life, the infinite possibilities that the young movement has ahead of it — as well as the necessarily combative rhetoric that finds echoes today — give the miniseries’ first two hours a jolt of excitement that’s missing from the following six. Though scantily developed, the personal stories feel much more lived-in during these early days. Particularly moving is Cleve’s fear of his father (David Hyde Pierce), a probably closeted psychiatrist who likely agrees with a renowned expert that there’s no such thing as a “happy homosexual.” The teenager waits until he’s 18 to come out, lest his parents force him into electroshock conversion therapy.

Jumping every five or ten years, the remaining sections fumble and flail in their attempts to address every major LGBTQ issue of the past 45 years. Occasionally a snippet of archival footage interrupts the main action — acting as a reminder of how tepid the miniseries is, as none of the dramatizations are anywhere near as involving as those one or two seconds of real life. Though heart-rending, the miniseries’ depiction of the HIV/AIDS crisis fails to capture the disorienting panic and seismic devastation that floored San Francisco’s gay community. And, too often, Black seems more invested in whether powerful figures signal concern about LGBTQ issues than in humanizing his gay and trans characters. Hence, when the 16-ton AIDS Memorial Quilt is unfurled outside of the White House, we’re cued to cry not because of the loss of so many lives, but because the inhabitants of the White House, then Bill and Hillary Clinton, finally acknowledge the monument, unlike Presidents Reagan and Bush. When We Rise’s tunnel vision about political power being the primary marker of progress may also be why the older versions of Cleve, Roma, and Ken are played by straight actors — Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, and Michael K. Williams, respectively — who, incidentally, look nothing like their younger counterparts. Cultural benchmarks, i.e., shows like Ellen and Will & Grace, are waved away as pacifiers of activist anger — the opium of progressives. One day after Moonlight became the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture, this cynicism seems hard-headed, if not downright wrong.

Sometimes a spectacularly crafted line cuts through the slog like the peal of a bell. “Your generation’s asleep,” an angry Cleve scolds a younger man midway through. “I could go to my grave a criminal again.” As Cleve gets embroiled in internecine bickering with fellow activists, Roma burrows into domesticity and Ken falls into drug addiction. A trans character, Cecilia Chung (Ivory Aquino), bobs in and out of the narrative to emotionally support Ken. None of these long detours into the activists’ private lives are remotely engaging, even when they dovetail with the homophobia and heteronormativity embedded into society’s institutions. When We Rise’s final two hours lay out the tangle of elections, court cases, and workarounds that led to the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court. The sorting through a stack of competing lawsuits and legal strategies is so dreadfully dull I would’ve felt sorry for Black if he hadn’t been the one to task himself with such Sisyphean tedium.

Gay marriage is the terminus of When We Rise, and Black’s installation of arrows pointing to Obergefell v. Hodges means discounting, if not mildly scoffing at, a great many cultural and political contributions — many more subversive than matrimony — that have made queerness such a remarkably innovative and influential force. That gay, trans, and other non-straight individuals have made extraordinary inroads into mainstream acceptance so relatively quickly deserves celebration. But When We Rise’s timid and narrow idea of what counts as progress doesn’t do justice to all the bravery, imagination, and hard work that went into making that progress a reality.