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When We Rise: A Love Letter to LGBT Activism

When We Rise

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ABOVE: Activist Cleve Jones (right) helped inspire writer, producer, and director Dustin Lance Black (shown together at the 81st Academy Awards).

He’d “never dare to make that comparison because Roots means so much to me,” but while no movement can compare to the struggles our once-enslaved ancestors went through, there’s little doubt When We Rise could have a similar impact on the American conscience. 

For those of us who made San Francisco our home during this period, who played roles in this movement, watching We Rise is a stirring emotional journey, a reminder of how strangers became family. It’s also a resounding love letter to a city that was an incubator for social change long before the tech boom and fiscal insecurity began pushing out the same ragtag collection of queers, trans people, and people of color who once made San Francisco what it was.

Having lived in the Bay Area for almost two decades, I know or knew many of the activists, writers, and actors who have helped bring these stories alive. Black helped shepherd the story into being, but he’s not the only director involved. Others helmed one or two episodes in the series, including lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees, gay director Gus Van Sant, and Thomas Schlamme.  

How did Black sell ABC on an eight-hour history of LGBT rights? 

“There had been several networks over the years who had expressed interest.” in LGBT book adaptations. But Black says he always worried it would take a lot of money and time and the only people who would watch would be LGBT allies. “What use is that?”

This time it was ABC that showed interest. “ABC is a network I was allowed to watch as a kid in Texas, in a Mormon, conservative, military home. And I just thought, if they are truly serious about this, this is finally an opportunity to introduce my LGBT family to my real family. And to tell our stories in a way that I can communicate to my LGBT family but also to my family in the South. I couldn’t pass that opportunity up.”

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Above: Rachel Griffiths, Guy Pearce (as Cleve Jones), Mary Louise Parker, and Michael K. Williams as the older activists.

Black dropped everything else to give “all my time and energy to this. It’s been incredibly difficult, but I do think it’s perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to not only tell our stories, but to tell [it] to an audience where it might make a difference.”

Step one was figuring out who to focus on and how their stories could be told so they would intersect organically. 

“I wanted it to be people who came from other movements,” he says. “I think it’s very dangerous how myopic the LGBT movement has become and I’m hopeful that we’re coming out of that period. And I wanted to help highlight that by depicting people who came from the black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the peace movement.”

He was also determined to find people who he could follow throughout the entire timeline of the series,  “I wanted it to be people who have been activists their entire lives. Meaning I could start to follow them as youngsters and take them all the way to the present. Well, that’s a really big challenge. And that eliminated a lot of people.”

And Black wanted to make sure that he was depicting — for the most part — people who are still alive. Not an easy feat when the AIDS epidemic took away so many gay and bi men and trans women who were emerging activists. And the filmmaker was determined to break the usual tropes LGBT characters are limited to, like “we’re allowed to be dramatic and serious, but only if we die at the end.”

That doesn’t mean this series is without its share of death and loss. And Ken Jones shoulders a fair amount of it. When Jones served in the Navy, only 5 percent of his fellow recruits were African-American. The sailor was reassigned to San Francisco to spearhead a new training program to facilitate racial integration in the ranks. He began to see that LGBT folks could only gain rights if they joined together. 

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