When We Rise
Welcome to the Weekend Binge. Every week, we’ll suggest a binge-able title designed to keep you from getting too stir crazy. Check back throughout the weekend for even more gloriously queer entertainment.
The Crash Course: When We Rise
As pride month gives way to the Fourth of July and Americans come out to celebrate their nation’s history–warts and all–we feel the time has come to light off some fireworks in honor of patriotic, LGBTQ trailblazers.
When We Rise traces the queer rights movement in San Francisco from the time of Harvey Milk up to the days of marriage equality. When it debuted on ABC back in 2017, the show got something of a raw deal: critics questioned some weird casting choices and for attacked the show for focusing too monomaniacally on the advances coming out of San Francisco. That’s a shame: while flawed, When We Rise does at least hit the high (and low) points in the history of equality.
The show follows the lives of activists Cleve Jones, Ken Jones and Roma Guy, beginning with the earliest days of gay liberation under Harvey Milk. Jones becomes something of a right-hand man to Milk while Guy becomes a community organizer around disenfranchised women. Meanwhile, Ken Jones returns to San Francisco as a decorated Vietnam vet where he became a director for the city’s Pride committee. As the series progresses, Cleve, Ken and Roma struggle to cope with homophobia, the assassination of Milk, the AIDS crisis, and ultimately, the fight for marriage equality. Their own maturing and evolution becomes a metaphor for that of the community, one whose influence grows beyond the gayborhood conclaves in major cities to reach all the way to Washington DC’s halls of power.
When We Rise doesn’t tell the whole story of LGBTQ culture in the US, but then, it doesn’t try to (FX’s recent series Pride does a much better job with that). The series focuses on San Francisco as ground zero for the push for legal rights, and given the city’s history with Harvey Milk, AIDS, marriage equality and more, that’s appropriate. Mary-Louise Parker, Guy Pearce and Michael K. Williams may get the star billing as Cleve, Roma and Ken, though the actors playing the three leads’ younger selves–Austin P. McKenzie, Emily Skeggs and Jonathan Majors–give the show’s best performances. We suspect that the involvement of Williams, Pearce and Parker probably got ABC to bankroll the show. Business pragmatism aside, we wish the show had just aged McKenzie, Skegges and Majors and let them continue their roles in every episode. They just seem to embody their characters so much more.
At its best, When We Rise captures the highs and lows of the LGBTQ’s community post-Stonewall, condensing a rich history into a sort of Cliff’s Notes version. It’s a good primer for understanding the history of queer rights in the United States, and a reminder that, despite the best efforts of the religious Right and the Republican party–this land is our land too.
Streams on Amazon.
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