‘When We Rise’: Queer history comes alive

The LGBT community’s most eagerly awaited television event comes to small screens with the Feb. 27 premiere of “When We Rise,” an epic, all-star docudrama about the early days of San Francisco’s equality movement.

The eight hour mini-series will air over the course of four nights on ABC TV. Based in part on longtime activist Cleve Jones’ same-named memoir and in part on a screenplay by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), “When We Rise” will recall the birth of the Bay Area community’s first gay activist organizations. The story will span decades of LGBT history and will include the assassinations of openly gay San Francisco’s Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, the AIDS epidemic of the following decade and beyond.

Jones was a personal friend of Milk’s. He was involved in the AIDS activist organization ACT UP and co-founded The Names Project the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Australian actor Guy Pearce stars as the older Jones, with Austin P. Mackenzie appearing as his younger version. Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg plays Pat Norman, an African-American lesbian who ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors during the 1980s, while Rosie O’Donnell will appear as Del Martin, who co-founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in U.S. history. “Glee’s” Kevin McHale will be seen as Bobbi Campbell, an AIDS activist who appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1983, the year before he died. Michael K. Williams plays Ken Jones, an organizer for the African-American gay community, while Carrie Preston will essay the role of lesbian activist Sally Gearhart, a close ally of Milk’s.

“It’s very important to remind ourselves how hard won equality is, and how easily dismantled it can be,” co-star Rachel Griffiths told PGN, speaking from her home in Australia. The actor will be portray Diane Jones, a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital who treated early AIDS patients.

“She was one of the first nurses at the AIDS ward,” Griffiths said of her character, a person who is not well known to the public. “Her courage was going to work. Not everyone changes the world via megaphone; some change the world quietly.”

At a time when many were afraid to touch people with AIDS, Jones embraced them.

“This was a time when hospital orderlies wouldn’t take food into the patients’ rooms,” Griffiths said. “It was hysteria.”

Griffiths said that, with the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president, the presentation of “When We Rise” takes on a greater significance.

“We’ve been coasting,” she said of the past few years. “We are now waking up to the ramifications of being politically complacent. Hopefully this production will inspire people to stand up.”

“It’s important to tell LGBT stories,” Black, who also directed one episode, told PGN. “This is a story where we don’t die at the end; we’re now at the stage where we can be presented as whole human beings and survive. It’s a message we can send to our kids.”

Like Griffiths, Black feels that the stories in “When We Rise” take on an even greater meaning in the current political climate.

“I would give anything in this world for this to be less necessary,” he said. “The words of division coming from our federal government are taking its toll on our youth. Those stoking fear have blood on their hands.”

Black hopes that “When We Rise” will open hearts and minds in conservative parts of the country.

“I didn’t write this for one America,” he said. “I wrote it for all our country and all its peoples. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in the writer’s room. We speak a language that both Americas will understand. I hope the series will be inspiring for viewers.”

“Milk” director Gus Van Sant directed the first episode of “When We Rise.”

“It’s sort of avante garde to say that this will play on ABC,” he said. “It will be seen across America, not just on HBO or Netflix. On a more mainstream channel it will go to places it couldn’t otherwise go.”

van Sant feels that the series, which spans four decades, will be thrilling for LGBT viewers.

“Watching the characters evolve over the years is one of the series’ strengths,” he said. “People in San Francisco will recognize their stories and issues. People in small towns may react in a smaller way.”

He added that historical incidents from New York City will be mentioned, such as the Stonewall Riots, but that the series will remain primarily in San Francisco.

“Cleve goes to an ACT UP meeting in New York,” he said. “We’ll also see some of the characters’ hometown pasts.”

Black hopes that seeing “When We Rise” will bring people from different communities together.

“Communities of diversity must come together,” he said. “Not just LGBTs, all communities. If we are divided, if we are only interested in our own issues, we could lose our rights. Together we are unstoppable.”  

“When We Rise” premieres at 9 p.m. Feb.27 on ABC. The subsequent segments will air at 9 p.m. March 1, 2 and 3.