We Should All Debate The Gay Liberation Miniseries When We Rise
There's so much to discuss, and it all matters.
I hope viewers argue about When We Rise. I hope a billion people watch this story about the dawn of gay liberation in America, and I hope every single one of them finds something to debate.
After watching the two segments that comprise Night 1, I'm sure as hell fired up to discuss some things. I'm pretty sure that Dustin Lance Black, who wrote much of the series and is credited as its creator, wants us to absorb this story with our critical eye wide open.
But first, the basics: the opening chapters are set in San Francisco in 1971, just two years after the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and they're structured around three young people who come to the Bay Area to cement both their sexual identities and their dreams of political activism.
There's Cleve Jones, an Arizona Quaker who grew up marching for his mother's causes and left town after his psychologist father insisted being gay was a sickness. There's also Ken Jones, an African-American Navy man who struggles to accept his sexuality even as he diligently battles racism in the military. And then there's Roma Guy, who swears she's not a lesbian while she's fighting for women's rights. However, she keeps sleeping with women, and she backs away from the National Organization for Women because of its anti-lesbian platform.
All three of these people -- along with many others in the series -- are real. Many of them are still alive, including Cleve and Roma, and if Dustin Lance Black had wanted to write a character-driven, sentimental story about them, it would've been plenty interesting. But he doesn't go that route. While all the characters certainly register as people, they're even more potent as mouthpieces for historical arguments.
To wit: when Ken meets a drag queen at an underground bar, that queen is quick with some insights as to how the so-called enlightened folks around town are actively oppressing queers. And Ken himself, when he's chatting over a drink, delivers a painfully elegant explanation of how hard it is to love one's blackness and hate one's queerness.
Everyone speaks like this, so that in the first two hours alone, we get pronouncements on everything from the movement's internal prejudices to the reasons San Francisco became a hotbed of resistance to the fact that queer women and men have to trust each other in order to fight straight society.
Of course, if that's all this miniseries offered -- a litany of issues and causes -- it wouldn't be worth arguing about. It wouldn't even be worth watching. What makes it so worthy of debate, however, is that it electrifies its history lessons with sparking life. The characters' notions feel alive. Their concepts feel urgent. You get a sense of the gay movement itself being a living, writhing thing that's racing through the streets of the Castro.
Along with Black, credit for this sizzle must also be extended to Gus Van Sant, who directs the first two hours. (Dee Rees is taking the next two, with Thomas Schlamme helming six and seven, and Black himself directing the final section.) In a sequence I won't soon forget, we see Cleve stumble across a young gay man bleeding on the sidewalk. Cleve asks some nearby policemen to help the injured man, but then he realizes it's the police who delivered the beating. So Cleve bolts to a nearby park...where he's beckoned by another young man into a treehouse. And in the treehouse are a bunch of other young guys, smoking dope in their tiny haven. It's a surreal transition that is never explained, and it tells me something about what it was like to live in San Francisco back then -- to be constantly hurtling between persecution and acceptance.
Something similar happens to Roma, played by Emily Skeggs, who is as open and endearing here as she was in the Broadway musical Fun Home. One minute she's running away from tear gas at a march she organized, and the next her sort-of-girlfriend is telling her that she herself is making things worse by refusing to own her queerness. I made an "oomph" sound as the wind got knocked out of me there.
And I want to talk about these things! I want to sort through my emotional and intellectual reactions to this unapologetically ideological work of art.
Here are some of my questions: so far, there's a clear to effort to include people of many ages and races, but does this make the series feel like a portrait of a full community, or just a carefully curated parade of tokens? Meanwhile, there are lot of people having a lot of sex, which is a refreshing change from the "safe and neutered" homosexuals we often see on network TV, but why is the only character who talks about free love openly mocked? Is there a strain of heternormative prudery in the film?
And what about the wig on Rosie O'Donnell, who plays the legendary Del Martin?
Can it receive a Nobel Prize?
I'm excited to keep wrestling with all these questions and see which ones come up next.