Gay activist Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce), speaking to a reporter in When We Rise, says, “Each generation has its own epic confrontations it must face.” The message is clear: You’re fighting a battle, dear viewer. But it’s a battle that’s been fought before. And it’s one that will be fought again.
Throughout the week, ABC will be airing episodes of the miniseries created by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), which depicts decades of recent LGBT history. There are many lessons to learn. And during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has already begun to attack transgender rights, learning them may be more essential than ever.
To this end, The Advocate discussed each episode with Black, asking the gay director and writer what LGBT viewers — and Americans more broadly — should take away from each “epic confrontation” that has taken place since a trans woman threw the first brick at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
The two-part finale could function as a standalone entry for new viewers to the drama — much of it is also a familiar story for them. This chapter shows how activists fought for and won marriage equality in the United States, beginning with the passage of Proposition 8, which sparked a new generation of advocates, and the legal fight leading up to the Supreme Court to defeat it.
These episodes, directed by Black, have a lot of star power. In addition to performances from Phylicia Rashad and Rob Reiner, T.R. Knight portrays activist Chad Griffin and Debra Winger wears the robes of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. But there's also stars of the LGBT movement; the real Prop 8. plantiffs, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, play themselves in the fight to defeat the voter-approved amendment to ban same-sex marriage in California.
Archival footage is put to effective use here. Lady Gaga, screaming "Are you listening, Obama?" at the March on Washington, and plaintiff Edie Windsor, whose separate Supreme Court case effectively gutted the Defense of Marriage Act, appear in clips to underscore, as Black previously stated, that these events actually occurred, despite attacks from alt-right trolls who claimed otherwise. But the finale also portrays behind-the-scenes moments not captured by cameras, such as the district court trial of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which was banned from broadcasting. There's also the clash between LGBT activists and organizations —the old guard and the new, bridged by Cleve Jones — about how marriage ought to be won and when.
Interspersed with the marches and the courtroom drama, however, are stories that will resonate with the present-day United States today. Roma Guy, drawing on her lessons from the women's movement, advocates to bring health care to all of San Francisco's residents, including immigrants. Ken Jones fights to make the religious community a more inclusive place for LGBT people. The overarching message, culminating here and built over the course of the series, is the interconnectedness of different fights and movements, said Black.
"I cannot believe that four years ago, we decided this is where we wanted the series to go," said Black about the finale's subject matter. "We wanted When We Rise not to just be about how we come together, and we come from other social justice movements, but to make sure that the last two hours include stories of how we should give back — given the lessons we’ve learned and the gains we’ve made."
This intersectionality is a lesson members of all vulnerable communities should remember today, as rights across the board become under attack during a Trump administration. There is strength in togetherness, said Black, and it will take the skills and the empathy of all to protect the most vulnerable.
"It is really criticial, at this moment and at this time, to remember what the 'we' in When We Rise means," Black said. "It is the biggest word in the title for a reason, by design. We have to remember that the 'we' is where we come from, and certainly the 'we' — those collaborations we make, in the family we build with other social justice movements — is what will make us strong enough to beat back this backlash and to move forward again. That means showing up to help our brothers and sisters in other social justice movements without asking for anything in return."
But in When We Rise, there are lessons for more than LGBT folks. Since it is on network television, the series can change hearts and minds for red-state viewers — the "other America" — in a critical period of U.S. history.
"I wrote this not just for my LGBT family, which I did, but also to be able to communicate effectively and clearly with my actual family in that other America — and perhaps even introduce my LGBT family to my real family in that other America," said Black, who was raised in a Mormon family in Texas. In creating When We Rise, he wanted to speak to the ties that bind between red and blue states and states of mind, which was a "guiding principle" from its inception. And so, he used the common language of family.
"People on both sides of this divided country know and understand the language of family. And so when you’re watching When We Rise, it is told through the stories of family — the families that we lost, the makeshift families we had to build in order to survive, and finally, the families that we made and raised," he said.
"If a Trump supporter and a Trump voter, many of which are my family whom I love dearly, watch this show, they’ll understand how much more similar we are than we ever imagined," he continued. "So many of those lies and distortions that they’ve heard about us and our families are not true. This was designed to cross that bridge between our two Americas."
The series ends with an epilogue — a message that was recently updated and broadened by Black and When We Rise's team, as recent political events changed the context of the miniseries and the state of the modern-day civil rights movements. (An early press screener had different text specific to attacks on LGBT youth.)
"We made the update because the situation in this country — for so many people who aren’t treated equally here, including people of diversity — that situation has worsened," Black said. "We needed to accurately describe what that situation is now, and who is under attack now, because this show has always been about not just LGBT people, but our brothers and sisters in other communities that also need to be protected and respected. So we have updated it to include those groups and to make it clear that this is one struggle or one fight."
"The show does not end in a victory, or end with a simple victory," he concluded. "It certainly is a baton to be passed to a new generation, and a call for the older generation to return to the fight — and not a fight just for ourselves. This epilogue says it’s a fight that must be waged in locked arms."
The entirety of the When We Rise series is available to stream on Hulu. Find more recaps on Advocate.com.