'When We Rise:' Queer history with an epic sweep

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ABC TV's "When We Rise" covers a lot of ground. The eight-hour presentation, which premieres on ABC TV on Feb. 27, begins in 1972 and ends in 2015, when the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. The series, which will air over four nights, tells the deeply personal backstories of a diverse group of LGBT people who came to San Francisco looking for a safe haven from a homophobic world. They not only find home, they help launch a worldwide movement.

The lead characters are real people, all of whom are still living. They shared their stories with writer/executive producer Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Milk" (2008). There's Cleve Jones, a white gay man who leaves home after his father offers to "cure" his homosexuality — a lobotomy as a possible treatment is discussed.

We also meet Roma Guy, a lesbian who grows weary of the homophobic sentiments she encounters at the Boston chapter of NOW — The National Organization for Women. Ken Jones is a navy veteran, an African American gay man who falls in love with a sailor while on combat duty. The two have a brief, passionate, albeit secret affair until Michael, his "lover" (the vernacular of the period) dies in combat. Jones is forced to hide his grief or face a dishonorable discharge.

Diane Jones is a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital: she's one of the first nurses to treat AIDS patients without fear — she enters into a long-term relationship with Roma Guy. And then there's Cecelia Chung, who has to remind people that she's not a gay man.

"I was always your daughter," Chung tells her mom.

San Francisco undergoes enormous and very rapid changes as the lives of this diverse group of people converge. At first they fight for the simple right to sit in a gay bar without getting arrested. Gay bashings are a constant threat. "When We Rise" recreates these early battles as many historic figures from the city's Queer past are weaved in and out of the mosaic. Whoopi Goldberg is seen in a few scenes as Pat Norman, an African American lesbian who worked for the Department of Health. Rosie O'Donnell plays Del Martin, who co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States. Michael DeLorenzo, who danced with Michael Jackson in the "Beat It" video more than thirty years ago, gives a heartfelt performance as Jose Sarria, San Francisco's first drag icon--Sarria mentored many of the city's gay youth of the period.

With an epic sweep not unlike "Gone With the Wind," "When We Rise" follows the characters over the years. We see the San Francisco community's first victories, the election of openly gay Harvey Milk to the City's Board of Supervisors — Milk is assassinated less than a year later. Violent riots break out when Milk's killer gets a slap on the wrist.

The community barely has time to mourn the loss of Milk when AIDS strikes--death is everywhere. Glee's Kevin McHale appears at this point as Bobbi Campbell, a gay man with AIDS who appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1983. As Cleve Jones loses all his friends to the disease, he creates the Names Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The story continues through the 1990s and into the millennium for the ultimate battle: the right for same-sex couples to marry, which goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Through it all, Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Ken Jones, Diane Jones and Cecelia Chung struggle to live normal everyday lives as they lead the charge to change the world around them. There are many intimate moments which lets viewers know who these people are behind closed doors. Roma Guy and Diane Jones become lesbian moms via an anonymous gay male sperm donor--years later their daughter wants to know who her dad is.

Cleve Jones, his body ravaged by HIV, struggles to stay alive. After he regains a semblance of good health he attempts to become a foster dad--the state takes the baby from him when his HIV status is discovered. Ken Jones gets an early lesson in why marriage equality is needed: after his second lover dies of AIDS, he's thrown out of their home. A judge tells Jones that he has no legal recourse. And Cecilia Chung must repeatedly explain that she's a woman to people who just don't get it. Newcomer Ivory Aquino shines in this role.

Guy Pearce gives a powerful performance as the older Cleve Jones who keeps his eye on the prize and never backs down, but it's Austin P. McKenzie as the younger Cleve who enacts the character's most powerful scene: the realization that his own Dad (David Hyde Pierce) thinks that he's mentally ill.

Mary Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths shine as Roma Guy and Diane Jones, a couple deeply in love. They manage to find the perfect balance between their lives as activists and the quiet family life they obviously yearn for. But it's Jonathan Majors, as the young Ken Jones, and Michael Kenneth Williams as the older Ken who gets the post powerful story line: losing two loves and realizing in the aftermath of both losses that he has no rights. Jones descends into a downward spiral of addiction until spirituality saves him.

"When We Rise" is grand storytelling, made all the more intense because the stories are true. How these characters lived and what they fought for stands as a stark reminder of all we have to lose should we become complacent. "When We Rise" is therefore essential viewing for all LGBT-identified people.

For non-LGBT viewers, perhaps "When We Rise" will serve as a reminder that underneath we're all the same.


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