San Francisco is known around the world for a lot of things: the Golden Gate Bridge, startups popping up left and right, the Summer of Love, and our open-mindedness. But when we think about open-mindedness and acceptance, we often don’t really think about all the steps it took to get there. San Francisco was not always the paradise that it is now, where anyone from anywhere can be whoever they want and welcomed with open-arms.
If anyone had the ability to write and direct “When We Rise,” it had to be Dustin Lance Black, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk” in 2008. Black’s eight hour mini-series is loosely based on Cleve Jones’ “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement.”
It follows the journey of three real-life activists trying to find and build a sense tolerance: Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones. In an otherwise unwelcoming city, the trio reflect on their own personal struggles and life experiences to dedicate their lives fighting for the rights of women and the LGBT community. The shows traces the beginning of the gay liberation movement back to the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and steadily moves through the early ‘70s and onwards, capturing landmark moments like the AIDS epidemic, hate crimes and Prop 8.
We are first introduced to a teenage Cleve Jones (Austin P. Mackenzie), who moves to San Francisco and discovers the hard way that the city has moved past the “Summer of ‘69” mindset he was looking for. Instead, he uses his quick wit and charm to survive in a city riddled with police brutality and discrimination. He crosses paths with Roma Guy (Emily Skegg), a mousy and oftentimes indecisive young woman from the East Coast who is a huge advocate for generously helping those less fortunate, women’s rights and collaborating with other communities also fighting for equality.
Finally, we are introduced to Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors), an African-American Naval officer discharged from Vietnam to Treasure Island, internally struggling with the turmoils of war as well as his own sexuality. Of the three, Ken is the most personally affected by the more pivotal issues surrounding the LGBT movement, and perhaps the most dramatic display of character development in the series.
Overall, “When We Rise” is an eye-opening mini series, especially for someone who has been living in the city and may not be aware of level of ground-breaking history that has occurred here. If not for the often unrecognized work of Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones, as well as many other activists in the city, our country would be very different from what it is today.
The series offers a star-studded and talented cast with standouts Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael K. Williams portraying the aged trio later in the series, giving more wisdom and thoughtfulness to the same characters while still capturing their fiery passion.
It also has great character development, a nostalgic look at San Francisco, and raw, fervorous moments that many people across the country experienced during this 40 year fight for women’s and LGBT rights. The message the show conveys draws viewers in, depicting scenes and emotions that are just as relevant today as they were in the past, such as when young Cleve Jones comes out as gay to his conservative, conversion-therapy performing father (David Hyde Pierce), or when Ken is seen stumbling through the streets of San Francisco seeking a community that will welcome him, something he can’t find with his own family.
“When We Rise” is also making grounds as one of the first LGBT programs to be picked up by ABC: a major, national, family-oriented network. This is a good thing: it gives exposure to the history behind the gay liberation movement, and for parts of the country where “LGBT” is a bad word, may give hope to the closeted and educate the ignorant.
“When We Rise” reminds us all that the seemingly impossible is possible with hard work, collaboration, persistence and patience. I had the opportunity to hear the real Cleve Jones speak at Folio books on March 21, his first public appearance since the show aired. In an intimate setting filled with those also moved by the show, Jones talked about how what he has done in terms of activism has been far from a sacrifice. He proposed, “If a person wants to make the changes they want to see, one must find what they love and persist, because fighting for something you are passionate about will never feel like a chore.”
In light of current times, many may feel like they have an uphill battle ahead of them. “When We Rise” is a great reminder that it’s been done before, and can be done again.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Photo from ABC