When We Rise Ends With Several Types Of Happiness
And it feels good to be seen.
I can't separate the last night of When We Rise from Moonlight's win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last weekend. They're linked by several circumstantial elements -- they both tell stories about gay folks, among other things -- but there's something else there, too.
Let's call it the quality of their joy. Both projects end with affirmations that queer people in America can find love. The love in Moonlight is cautious, with Chiron just learning to articulate what's underneath his hard posturing, while in When We Rise, it's full-throated, full of characters making blunt speeches about finding their home in a whirling world. And both stories send their central characters out with moments of grace.
I will leave it to film writers to sort through why that's so deeply meaningful for a film like Moonlight. (Aisha Harris, for instance, has some lovely things to say on the matter.) But with regard to the miniseries, I want to celebrate how we spend the last hour or so watching queers not only stop getting assaulted, but also stop defining themselves by assault.
Of course, there is a LOT of assault leading up to this, including the literal, physical attacks endured by everyone from Cleve to Ken to Cecilia Chung, the trans woman who becomes such a major player in Parts 3 and 4. Then there are the emotional blows from uncaring neighbors, families, and officials, plus the psychic violence of fearing AIDS and just generally feeling unwelcome in your own country.
But by the last hour, the story shifts to narratives like Roma and Diane deciding to get married, and Ken finding a prominent role in an inclusive church (led by Phylicia Rashad!). We see Cecilia get a satisfying job in the city government, and we see Cleve finally stop bitching at younger queens for not being radical in the "right way" and instead discover these kids can be part of his family.
And, for the most part, the aren't any straight people around. Or at least, the straight people are just there. They're not driving the story by hating the gay people or "heroically" accepting them or whatever else straight people do when they sneak in and take over a gay narrative. That just feels so nourishing: gayness becomes a constant fact. Even though the fight isn't over, we're fighting from a much stronger position.
When We Rise ends with some heavy-handed points about how these rich, full lives are perhaps the most radical gestures of all, and how demonstrating them -- on TV, in films, in the mall or at a restaurant or in an amusement park line -- can make life easier for young queer people.
Part of me resists this sermonizing, but this is a message series, after all. It's here to be overt and specific, and just as much as we need subtle, interior works of art like Moonlight, we need aggressively straightforward ones like this. It can be obvious and a little tiring, but so what? I still want to hear what it has to say.
Do I think the gay struggle is over? No. And despite this show's happy ending, I'm guessing none of the people who created it do either. But the joyous things we see at the end are also part of the world. Remembering these victories -- and defining them as such -- will make the next battle easier to wage.