Sunday, March 5, 2017

When We Rise review

The culmination of a four year project is an eight hour miniseries written by Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the Harvey Milk biopic Milk. The movie focused on Harvey Milk's political career and gay rights activism in San Francisco before his murder. The movie was unique in finding ways to cut actual footage of the real events along with the re-enactment nearly seamlessly.

That same effect is very apparent in When We Rise with news and other footage being used to define the different times of the over 40 year period the series depicts.

The series follows the lives of a handful of activists based in San Francisco: Cleve Jones, a young man from Arizona who wound up working with Harvey Milk's campaigns and after his death had to carry on the work during the AIDS crisis, including beginning the AIDS memorial quilt. There is also Ken Jones, an African-American Vietnam veteran whose position as a black man and a veteran would often keep him from living openly, who would eventually find himself homeless after his partner dies before deciding to use his experience to help homeless youth as well. Also depicted are Roma Guy and her eventual wife Diane who would both lead in activism for women and LGBTs as well as healthcare access, and also start a family on their own. Finally, a transgender character is found in Cecilia Chung, a healthcare advocate.

The series details the lives of these characters, showing the world they lived in and what they had to deal with, from fighting for rights for housing and employment to federal assistance for AIDS research all the way to the fight for marriage equality. The series closes after the repeals of the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

The series is of course well-produced, although the look of the series is decidedly for television, and while well-shot, doesn't have the same richness as some dramas and other shows.

Many naysayers on gay issues criticized the show (sight unseen, of course) as liberal propaganda. However, the show avoids trying to skew towards any bias on political issues. George W. Bush doesn't come off looking nice for insisting on traditional marriage, but neither does Bill Clinton for allowing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act to be passed. Obama's declaration of support for same-sex marriage is displayed not as a token in his cap, or a Democrat's cap, but as the first president to voice this support, which is simply the fact.

Pro-gay folks still had their criticisms. Of the four main activists depicted, only one is a person of color. Black hasn't commented on this that I've seen, but I think it's worth noting that he focused on true life stories and their real names were being used, so this was likely a byproduct of narrowing down a cohesive, multi-faced narrative of people who were also willing to sign off on being depicted in the series. While Black assured the audience via Twitter that there were trans and bisexual people being depicted, it's a little difficult to spot them, especially the bisexuals. The choice to jump forward a decade through the 1980s and the worst of the AIDS crisis was also criticized. I'm sure this was done as a narrative choice, and there are other readily available sources on this period of time.

When We Rise isn't an all-encompassing history of the LGBT rights movement, but instead a compelling view of how the world changed for a marginalized group in the course of over just forty years, seen through the eyes of a handful of individuals who lived through it. Black assures us that there are many other fascinating stories, more viewpoints that he wants to help get out there. Some of the backlash for just a miniseries lets us know that there are people who need to open their ears, eyes and hearts to our stories, because for all the gains this community has made, there is a lot of work yet to do.

The final shot shows text reading that the rights of LGBTs, women, people of color and religious minorities are still under attack. This final message reminds us the need for intersectional activism, and as Whoopi Goldberg has stated, "If someone doesn't have civil rights, none of us do," reminding us that rights given only to certain people are not rights but privileges.

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