ABC, long ago the network of Roots, boldly strives to make another landmark contribution with the four-part, eight-hour When We Rise (Mon, February 27, 9 p.m. ET).
Mission accomplished -- fully and fearlessly with this sweeping dramatization of the ongoing fight to achieve equal rights for what has become the shorthand LGBT(Q) community. It’s a movement hamstrung by infighting, intransigent lawmakers, and extreme physical peril, both from the AIDS epidemic and at the brutal hands of homophobes. When We Rise recaptures it all. And at its center is Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce, below, and Austin P. McKenzie in earlier years), a real-life activist whose gains, setbacks and personal losses are a steady drumbeat throughout.
Principally behind the camera is creator/co-executive producer Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar), who wrote the entire screenplay for When We Rise and also directed two episodes. “Now more than ever I feel it is critical that these diverse, long-buried true stories are known,” Black says in a brief note to television critics.
He needn’t say much more and had no idea at the time that President Trump this past week would withdraw support of the previous administration’s federal directive that transgender students in public schools be allowed to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. Individual states should decide such matters on their own, according to the new directive.
In that context, it’s also ironic that ABC’s intended four successive nights of When We Rise are being interrupted by President Trump’s prime-time address to Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 28. The miniseries now will skip that night and resume on Wednesday through Friday.
Those who contend that TV critics should keep politics out of their reviews have no standing in regard to When We Rise. It’s constantly about politics and protest, whether at the local, state or national levels.
In succession, Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are seen through the prism of archival news footage. Their actions or, for the most part, inactions, are part and parcel of a story that begins in 1972 and stretches through 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of California’s Prop 8, which reversed the state Supreme Court’s earlier allowance of same-sex marriages. Yes, it can get complicated. But When We Rise chops crisply through these thickets while also telling the very human stories of Cleve Jones and three other primary characters.
Ken Jones (Michael K. Williams/Jonathan Majors) is a gay African-American veteran of three Vietnam deployments. Roma Guy (Mary-Louise Parker, above, right/Emily Skeggs) and Diane (Rachel Griffiths, above, right/Fiona Dourif) are lesbian activists who also become parents of a growingly rebellious daughter born via artificial insemination. Williams, Parker, and Griffiths don’t begin their older adult performances until Thursday’s two-hour Part 3. But Pearce is seen from the very start as Cleve, circa 2006 at his Palm Springs home. He’s also the primary narrative voice during the miniseries’ backtrack to Cleve’s formative years, which is where McKenzie’s portrayal comes in.
When We Rise is dotted by contributions from other familiar faces, some in cameos and others making more substantive but still limited contributions. The roll call includes Whoopi Goldberg (right) and Rosie O’Donnell (both as San Francisco-based lesbian activists); David Hyde Pierce (Cleve’s recalcitrant doctor father); Phylicia Rashad (a church pastor supportive of gay civil rights); Rob Reiner (a naysaying but ineffectual court “expert”); and Richard Schiff (a judge).
Lesser known actors have pivotal supporting roles. Sam Jaeger plays Ken’s partner, Richard, and Rafael de la Fuente is Cleve’s lover, Ricardo. Down the stretch, Arliss Howard makes an instantly strong impression as conservative lawyer Ted Olson, who was George W. Bush’s solicitor general but came to believe that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Gideon Adlon and Phoebe Neidhardt also are impressive in various stages as Roma and Diane’s daughter, Annie.
ABC, with broadcast network constraints in play, is not shy about depicting same-sex kissing, sometimes at length. But nudity remains a taboo, and that includes even any brief glimpses of an unadorned posterior. The language is also devoid of profanity.
Many advertisers likely will sit this one out anyway. When We Rise remains a courageous venture, particularly on the part of a network that’s owned by the Walt Disney Company. NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt is openly and at times outspokenly gay. But it’s ABC stepping to the fore while the Peacock indulges Greenblatt’s interest in yearly live musicals. On Monday night, he’s very vigorously counter-programming with a two-hour Season 12 premiere of The Voice followed by the launch of NBC’s heavily promoted series continuation of the hit movie franchise Taken.
It’s tough to be an unexpected hit, as Roots was, under such circumstances. But in this view, When We Rise is the 2016-17 TV season’s Program of the Year. Led by sterling performances from Pearce and Williams, it’s a masterwork that generates empathy while building momentum via a compelling story rich in human and legal complexities.
Cleve Jones and Ben Jones were far from being saints. They sometimes succumbed to their excesses and lesser selves, as do we all. But in the end -- and it’s hard to imagine many dry eyes from viewers who steer the entire course -- their struggles help lead the way to equality in at least the nation’s prevailing legal sense of the word.
Many still disagree, and some will see this as strictly the devil’s work. That’s their right, and, from this perspective, also their problem. When We Rise is an enriching, bonafide TV event of the first order and also powerful enough to change more than a few entrenched minds. Bravo to ABC, for unflinchingly standing behind it. You don’t have to watch. But really, you should.
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