When We Rise Has Some Fresh Things To Say About Harvey Milk And The AIDS Plague
Pardon Mark Blankenship as he cries about this rainbow flag.
These are the stories I know. The second night of When We Rise looks at the rise and assassination of Harvey Milk and the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco, and while it provides a decent (if compact) history of those events, I found it hard not to tick off boxes as I watched. Here's the part where nobody in the hospital will treat the gay cancer. And here's the part where gay men are horrified to realize that the sexual liberation they fought so hard for is now the very thing that's killing them. And no, Reagan won't dignify the plague by discussing it until women start getting sick. And yes, that just underscores how many people feared queer people in the early '80s, despite (or more likely because of) their new prominence on the national stage.
But no wonder I've heard it all before. It's precisely because these events are so important that the culture has been exploring them for over thirty years. Randy Shilts gets a shout-out in this episode, when someone says he ought to write a story for the San Francisco Chronicle about the increase in gay political power, and of course that's a nod to how Shilts eventually wrote And the Band Played On. That book and miniseries hang around the edges of these episodes (just like The Normal Heart, even though Larry Kramer was in New York at the time). And if you know Angels In America or Rent or How To Survive A Plague or Dustin Lance Black's Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk, or, or, or...well...you get the picture.
So do I check out a little here? Yes. But you can't leave out these chapters. You can't tell the story of San Francisco's gay community without AIDS and without Harvey Milk. And to their credit, Dee Rees (who directs) and company still deliver a few fresh kicks to the stomach.
One thing I loved seeing, for instance, is a depiction of the Butterfly Brigade, which was a movement of homos in San Francisco who kept each other safe when people tried to assault them. As someone who has run from my share of bullies calling me a faggot, it was thrilling to see the Brigade roll up and scare the shit out of some straight assholes.
Then there's Roma's slow discovery that she's actually worthy of love. In the first two hours, she was still terrified to call herself a lesbian, and now she's able not only to acknowledge that shame, but also beat it back. When she stands in the hospital parking lot and tells Diane that she's ready for the emotional connection she thought she wasn't allowed to have, I swoon and swoon, y'all. And never mind that this comes just seconds after Roma sends ladies from the Women's House into the AIDS ward to help all those dying men that the rest of the world is throwing away. Chills.
I'm also here for the moment near the end, when Ken Jones talks about the courage of people who died from AIDS and the courage of people who lived with it. Jonathan Majors has such an expressive face that I believe in this Modern Woodmen of the World speech as though it were coming from his heart. And when I say "I believe," what I mean is that "I cried and felt lucky to be gay, because so many people did so much for me before I was even born."
Along those lines, my favorite image of the night is the unveiling of the Pride Flag. We get to see a scene of Gilbert Parker creating it, and when it unfurls at the Gay Freedom March in 1978, Rees shoots the moment from below, with characters looking up at this massive banner of their unity whipping around in the wind. It's so ennobling and so beautiful, and it reminds me that even in the midst of all the harassment and death, the queer community of this time was also creating something that would triumphantly, unabashedly live.