There’s a scene early on in creator Dustin Lance Black’s new miniseries, When We Rise, in which a wide-eyed and naïve Roma Guy (Tony nominee Emily Skeggs, rocking a Ramona Quimby-esque bowl cut) tries and fails to convince a group of like-minded lesbian activists in 1970s San Francisco to include other disenfranchised women—maybe even some gay men—in their upcoming protest.
It doesn’t go well for her.
The idea that we’d all benefit if we banded together isn’t something that went out with end of Carter administration. In fact, it’s what motivated Black to pitch his project to ABC in the first place.
“I was getting concerned about four years ago that, while working in the LGBT movement, that LGBT people were becoming a bit self-interested and myopic,” Black explains of his eight-hour miniseries, which premieres February 27, during a phone interview with Paste. “We were fighting really hard for our own rights, but I didn’t see that we were working as hard for our brothers and sisters in other social justice movements. As a student of history, I knew that was a mistake. It’s pretty obvious that no minority can succeed at winning equality on their own.”
Told through both modern-day narration and flashbacks to liberal activists’ origin stories, their days standing up for equality in and around San Francisco’s Castro district, When We Rise mostly focuses on the points of view of LGBT people. In addition to Guy, played by Mary-Louise Parker in the present-day narration, there are also characters based on activists Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie in the past; Guy Pearce in the present) and lesbian/radical feminist educator Sally Gearhart (Carrie Preston). Black also felt it was important to include trans people in his story—and that, naturally, trans actors should be the ones to play these parts. Ivory Aquino, who publicly outed herself in January, plays trans activist Cecilia Chung.
Black added that he liked the title When We Rise because “it was open ended and we could finish the sentence in different ways: When we rise in America, we will blank; when we rise in Texas; when we rise in the Middle East; when we rise in Uganda; when we rise in Russia.” (Last year, Jones published a memoir by the same name though it was written independently and Black says he’s never read it; rather, he says, “we inspire each other and we definitely agree to share a title.”)
“If you see the entire series, this story is not a complete story,” Black continues. “This story is a baton that is being passed to a new generation and it is a torch that, I hope, will call an older generation back to the fight.”
History has shown that it’s easy for writers, including those with the best of intentions, to fall into stereotypes when depicting LGBT characters—even if the script comes from out and proud members of the community like Black. Factor this in with the miniseries airing on ABC, a network that might be home to Shondaland but is still under the Walt Disney Company umbrella, and it’s understandable that When We Rise may raise red flags in the minds of some audience members.
“The good news is, this series is based on real people,” Black says, adding that he not only interviewed the living people portrayed in the project, but also connected them with their thespian counterparts. “I wanted to base [a character] on a real person, so if they are flamboyant in some way, terrific—that’s how I’m going to write them. If the lesbian is butch, great—that’s how I’m going to write them. But if they’re different than that, I’m going to try to get them as close to my reality as possible… In that way, you’re not dealing with stereotypes, you’re dealing with real people. And there are no two people on the planet who are [exactly] alike.”
The casting also has subtle political connotations in the use of out and/or LGBT-friendly actors. Whoopi Goldberg plays AIDS activist and first openly gay San Francisco Health Department employee Pat Norman, while Denis O’Hare plays Jim Foster, the first openly gay Democratic party organizer. Michael K. Williams plays the older version of African-American community organizer Ken Jones (newcomer Jonathan Majors plays him in the flashbacks) and David Hyde Pierce plays Cleve Jones’ dad, a psychologist with his own ideas about how to help homosexuals.
“When we’re casting, we’re just going for who’s the best actor for the role,” Black says. “Sometimes that means casting actors who can bring their own experience to the role. That doesn’t always mean that they have to play someone who’s exactly like who they are. These are great actors. David Hyde Pierce is playing a father who is quite homophobic when we first meet him. I’m sure David Hyde Pierce has some personal experience with what that must be like. I think that’s incrementally valuable.”
Also of value to Black: Having just as much diversity behind the camera as in front of it. When We Rise reunites Black with Gus Van Sant, with whom he’d successfully partnered for the 2008 biopic Milk. The miniseries’ other directors include Bessie’s Dee Rees and The West Wing and The Americans’ Thomas Schlamme.
“It couldn’t just be a bunch of gay white men making the show,” Black says. “If you’re going to make a show about LGBT equality and the LGBT movement, you better bring it to life with all the diversity that exists in the movement… And that’s not to be PC, that’s because I wanted to get this right. I do not know what the African-American lesbian experience is, not first-hand. But Dee Rees does, and having her around, even when Gus was shooting and she was prepping her episode, was incredibly helpful, because she helped teach me how women do it differently from men—sometimes in graphic fashion in front of the crew.”
Still, there is a fear that those who need to see this miniseries the most won’t watch it, or live in a community that may not be receptive to them doing so. News reports have already pointed out the inconvenient irony that When We Rise’s second episode was rescheduled to make room for President Trump’s congressional address. This was discussed in detail at the series’ Television Critics Association press day in January. “Right now, at a time when, from my perspective, I see a very divided country, a country in pain, a nation in pain… we need to be reminded that there’s a lot of stories of triumph, of courage that this country was built on, and When We Rise is truly one of them,” Williams said then.
For his part, Black says he “would give anything for this not to be so necessary a story right now; you have to be a sociopath to want that… The language being used against minorities in this country—and I’m speaking beyond just LGBT people—is so hateful, is so based in stereotype, is so shame-filled [that] … the leaders who are using this language have blood on their hands.”
Black says he hopes When We Rise is “a road map for us to come through these difficult times. I hope that it sends a message of hope, not just to LGBT people across the country, but to other people of diversity who are being told that they’re somehow less-than because they’re different. I hope this series says loud and clear that your difference is what makes you beautiful and valuable.”
When We Rise premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on ABC.