When We Rise: LGBT history comes alive in new ABC series

Currently in production at ABC is an eight-hour miniseries titled “When We Rise.” Scheduled to air early next year, the series will chronicle the history of the LGBT-equality movement from the Stonewall Riots in 1969 through to the present day.

“When We Rise” is inspired in part by a forthcoming memoir by veteran gay-rights activist Cleve Jones, who was a personal friend of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold elected office in the United States. Jones, among other accomplishments, was the creator of The Names Project: the AIDS Memorial Quilt; Jones is himself a longtime HIV survivor.

“When We Rise” promises to be a mammoth production. It comes to ABC courtesy of the team behind the Oscar-winning biopic “Milk” (2008). “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is writing and producing “When We Rise,” with “Milk” director Gus Van Sant signing on to call the shots.

“It’s called ‘When We Rise’ because ‘we’ is important,” Black told PGN. “‘We’ goes beyond LGBT. It’s about the interconnectedness of social-justice movements. As one group rises, they have to help the other groups come up.”

“It’s remarkable that ABC wanted to do this,” added Jones. “They didn’t have to be pitched. That’s a good indication of how far we’ve come.”

On April 29, PGN stood across the street from San Francisco City Hall and watched the filmmakers recreate the White Night Riots. The riots took place in May 1979, when an enraged gay community stormed City Hall; the protestors were furious that former City Supervisor Dan White had gotten a slap on the wrist for murdering Milk and Mayor George Moscone the year before. Gay men and lesbians were tired of being told that they were undeserving of equality and that their lives didn’t matter. They broke windows. They set police cars on fire. They had had enough.

It was a pivotal moment in gay history, one that sent a very strong message.

“To be on the steps of City Hall re-enacting the riots after the verdict came down on Dan White for assassinating Harvey Milk and George Moscone was almost surreal,” said Steven Bracco, a 31-year-old gay man. Bracco was cast as an extra in the White Night Riots sequence, and in a scene in which the iconic rainbow flag was first raised in 1978.

“I was so honored to be able to meet Gilbert Baker, the creator of the Pride flag, and to see [the flag] soar above Civic Center like [it] did back in 1978,” Bracco added. “While I wasn’t alive at the time of these events, I can understand how important they are to our community. I wanted to be there to be a part of it in some way.”

“When We Rise” will feature Guy Pearce as Cleve Jones. The cast includes Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Mary Louise Parker, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin McHale and Austin P. McKenzie as the younger Cleve Jones.