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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

When We Rise *****

Starring: Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jonathan Majors, Emily Skeggs, Austin P. McKenzie, Fiona Dourif, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell

Created by: Dustin Lance Black

Director: Gus Van Sant

In 2009, a fresh-faced young gay writer breathlessly accepted his Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at The Oscars, where he thanked Gay Rights Activist Cleve Jones for his involvement in making the film Milk. Then relatively unknown, Dustin Lance Black gave a moving speech looking forward to the day when LGBT People would have full Equal Rights. Now, eight years later, Black has marked the moment that the equality he mentioned has finally been achieved in America by utilising his newfound celebrity to make When We Rise, a comprehensive docudrama that charts Gay Liberation from Stonewall right through to the moment marriage equality was achieved in 2015, in a piece that centres around Cleve Jones and other leading activists. And the result is nothing short of amazing.

Beginning in 1972, Cleve (McKenzie as a young man and Pearce older) arrives in San Francisco, having escaped from his psychiatrist father, who wants him to undergo electroshock therapy. Having heard of the "Gay Liberation Movement" in the city, he arrives convinced that he will find a newfound Gay Mecca, but instead finds a city where gay people are being persecuted by the police. Insistent that they stand firm, Cleve and his friends consolidate a block known as the Castro, where LGBT people will have a safe haven from their oppressors. Elsewhere, Roma Guy (Skeggs as a young woman and Parker older) moves to the city and struggles to find her place within the Women's Group she joins. Struggling, both with her own sexuality and with the group about their hatred of men, she becomes instrumental in mobilising gay men and lesbians together to have more impact with their marches. Eventually united, they are able to get Harvey Milk elected. But after Milk's assassination, Roma's girlfriend Diane (Dourit younger, Griffiths older) works as a nurse in a hospital that is getting more and more cases of a disease seemingly affecting only gay men. Elsewhere, Ken (Majors younger, Williams older) is a Vietnam veteran who channels his experience from the battlefield into his quest for acceptance for being gay within the black community and being black within the gay community.

When We Rise sees Dustin Lance Black reuniting with legendary director Gus Van Sant for the first time since Milk, which has become one of the most highly regarded pieces of LGBT Cinema in history. After such an accomplishment together, it seems only natural that the two should pair up again for what is, essentially, an expansion of Van Sant's movie. When the series begins to depict elements of the Harvey Milk story, you can't help but wonder if the two can resist creating yet another piece about the now iconic politician, but they show remarkable restraint in seeing that this is just a smaller piece inside the much bigger puzzle. Nor does the series feel like a sequel to Milk, but instead a vastly expanded companion piece. The series does focus almost entirely on San Francisco however, showing just how large a role the city has had in driving the LGBT cause.

Initially, it seemed odd that the film had chosen to start after Stonewall, somehow resisting the temptation to stick two fingers up at Robert Zemeckis' whitewashed movie of the same name, because Black and Van Sant would clearly have done it better. However, the series feels all the stronger for its unity of place, so we pick up from the moment that San Francisco begins to feel the ripples from the riots in New York a few years earlier. Looking back today, it's actually quite difficult to join the dots between the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the later establishment of the Gay Community, but this series has managed to deftly pull all the strands together, showing how political campaigners, gay bars, women's groups, marches, vigils and health organisations eventually came together to form what we now recognise as the bedrock of LGBT Culture.

In the early episodes, we see how young people came together to drive the Movement forward. The cast of younger actors are charismatic and filled with the fervour of a people demanding their rights, especially as they come against older members of their community (shown through powerful cameos by Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O'Donnell), who find it hard to envision how change could actually come about. In the later episodes, they also have to struggle with the younger generation, who seem apathetic to the causes they are fighting for. However, in all their struggles, they discover that progress can only be made when the LGBT Community pull together for a common cause. As Jones says, "One struggle. One fight."

Mary-Louise Parker depicts the older Roma with strength and drive, while Griffiths, Williams and Pearce all give strong performances as the older characters. However, Emily Skeggs is the real standout performer, depicting the younger Roma as a complex and exciting character. You can't help but like her, as she always makes the right choices, even when having to prioritise the problems of her personal life alongside the bigger issues of the people she represents. And though she is shown as a staunch advocate of fighting for women, it is her recognition that they must not isolate themselves from men that eventually leads to them really managing to further their cause.

The artistic merits of When We Rise take a slight knock for its intention to be as comprehensive as possible. Essentially, this is a docudrama that allows for little directorial flair, but in its objective of bringing LGBT People's struggle to a mainstream television audience, the series must be watched at face value. Essentially, this is four feature films and as such, their cohesiveness is particularly impressive, especially when watched back to back. The first hour deals with the establishment of the Castro, the union of the LGBT strands and the election of Harvey Milk. The second focuses almost entirely on the AIDS Crisis. The third looks at its aftermath, both socially and politically, while the fourth is about marriage equality. And throughout, real pace is maintained in telling the stories of this handful of real people.

By the time the final credits roll, you can't help but feel like you've been on a marathon with these characters. But also, you come out the other side much more educated about the generations that have come before us. The only real criticism that can be levelled at the series is that it doesn't really show us what life was like before the initial decriminalisation, but then we probably all know that already. Also, the final episode is somewhat complicated in the way it rattles through the court-cases and political battles that dealt with Prop 8 and DOMA, but is there a cinematic way of dramatising a whole catalogue of legal battles? As a result , the latter part does feel a little dense, especially for a British audience who may not have a grasp on the minutiae of the American political system.

At times, this feels like a tick-sheet about Gay Culture. From bathhouses to rainbow flags, polygamy to Lady Gaga; it's all in there, chronicling the A-Z of being LGBT in America. And it's all done in the most wonderfully diverse way. Where Stonewall received much criticism for focusing on white and palatably nubile young men, When We Rise features characters of all races, genders, sexualities, ages and even religions, depicting the entire spectrum of the of the community it represents. Above anything else, it champions this cohesion, stating in no uncertain terms that people are at their strongest when they unite together. So while this is a piece that celebrates all the players in past struggles, regardless of their origins, it couldn't come at a better time, when audiences in both Britain and America find themselves divided once more. A staunchly political piece, When We Rise just goes to show that enormous lessons can still be learnt from the past, even if that past is relatively recent. And hopefully, the series will do something to stoke the fires of the people demanding cohesion once again.


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