'When We Rise': TV Review | Palm Springs 2017

Eike Schroter/ABC
Emily Skeggs of 'When We Rise'
The subject, more than the execution, will make you want to watch.
2/27/2017

The Gus Van Sant-directed pilot for Dustin Lance Black's ABC miniseries about the gay rights movement is accessible more than confrontational — and all the more important for it.

The 84-minute first chapter of When We Rise premiered Thursday night at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, a likely place to witness the unveiling of a new piece of activist storytelling from Milk collaborators Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant.

That premiere is the only part of When We Rise that I can review here, but the entire eight-hour miniseries will actually air on ABC starting on Feb. 27, and network TV is a much less likely place to encounter an epic history of the gay rights movement.

Where one does or does not expect to see a project like When We Rise also plays heavily into how one is likely to receive and perceive it.

In a film festival environment, in which stories of otherness and barrier-breaking are part of the expected tapestry, When We Rise might play as a bit quaint, muted and smoothed out for mainstream audiences, which it very clearly is. But even in 2017, when we like to think that boundaries have been pushed a fair amount and that the voices being heard are as diverse as ever, When We Rise feels like a rather astounding thing to find on network TV.

Actually, the first episode of When We Rise is an odd thing to be asked to stand alone in any environment. Not only is it just the start of a long story, but while the series itself boasts Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael K. Williams and Rachel Griffiths among its big-name stars, only Pearce appears in the first episode in any meaningful way (and his presence is limited to narration and a storytelling introduction that will presumably become bookending).

Pearce plays Cleve Jones, the real-life activist who serves as a consultant on the miniseries and whose book helped inspire or inform it, but the first chapter takes place in 1972, when Cleve is played by Austin P. McKenzie. Also serving as main characters and consultants are fellow real-life figures Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs and then Parker) and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and eventually Williams). Having purposely resisted watching future episodes to keep the focus in this review, I can't speak to the performances by the big names, but knowing who plays whom, it's hard not to be at least slightly distracted by how little "resemblance" seems to have been a casting prerequisite.

Using a Life magazine year-in-review issue as a catalyst, Black's approach here has been to situate the gay rights movement post-Stonewall in the context of other movements of the late '60s and early '70s, from civil rights to women's rights to anti-war efforts. The various characters converge in a San Francisco that was trying to distance itself from Summer of Love anarchy. Cleve, alienated from his homophobic psychiatrist father (David Hyde Pierce, with a wink and a nudge), becomes a hobo and a hustler looking for his place on the scene. Roma, unwilling to discuss her sexuality with her conservative family, seeks her niche in a female empowerment movement that can't decide how much it wants to rebel against the patriarchy and how welcoming it wants to be to lesbians and gay male allies. Coming back from war, Ken has a job battling racism in the military, while also struggling with how demonstrative he can or wants to be with his sexuality.

The pilot, more than anything, is about pushing the characters into increasing proximity to each other as they interact with other mostly real activists including Rosie O'Donnell as Del Martin, Whoopi Goldberg as Pat Norman, Denis O'Hare as Jim Foster and Carrie Preston as Sally Gearhart.

Make no mistake: Even if the first 84 minutes of When We Rise doesn't have the miniseries' biggest stars, the episode is full of familiar faces. Preston is particularly good, as is O'Hare, making the most of only one scene as the face of a movement that Jones is going to have to build on. The younger, less-known actors have a difficult task because so much of what they're asked to do in the early going is be wide-eyed and open to the possibilities of the changing San Francisco scene while more colorful things happen around them. That is especially the case with McKenzie, whose performance only clicks when Cleve's desperation brings out much-needed humor. Skeggs is impressive when it comes to conveying internal machinations beneath a very placid exterior (which also happens to be one of Parker's great strengths, so that's a good match). Majors benefits greatly from a storyline filled with combat action, grief and uprising. Generally, the first episode takes advantage of Van Sant's love of patient close-ups, giving performances the chance to slowly emerge.

There have always been two or three different versions of Gus Van Sant, and while Well-Meaning Populist Gus Van Sant — see Promised Land or Finding Forrester — has been the less interesting of his incarnations, it's appropriate here. He weaves in enough archival photos and documentary footage to add authenticity to the proceedings. While the costumes and hair fall into that period trap of looking too perfect, the production design captures a moment between revolutions in which all the residences and meeting halls had gone a bit to seed and nobody was confident in the future to rebuild quite yet. Topped with an obligatory retro gauziness, it's all just real enough, but accompanied by enough solid and mostly not-too-obvious soundtrack choices and scoring to provide ample uplift and inspiration.

I bet — actually, I hope, because that implies progress will continue — When We Rise is only a few years away from looking like a Disney-ride version of gay activism, probably on par with what a premium cable network might have shown 15 years ago or even 20 or 25, but I don't think you can underestimate what a leap forward this still represents for a broadcast network. Black steers the main characters from uncertainty to ideological awakening clearly, and the forces expressing hatred are less cartoonish than they could be. Everything in the opener feels just a bit sanded down, whether it's the incongruously family-friendly language, depictions of gay bars and ostensibly intense political meetings or scenes of intimacy, which feature a lot of chaste same-sex kissing or cuddling, followed by fades to black. Since ABC is already letting the producers of How to Get Away With Murder get away with far edgier stuff, there's little doubt that both Black and Van Sant themselves are favoring accessibility over confrontation — and the result may be all the more valuable in its potential to reach a wider audience.

Cast: Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Michael K. Williams, Ivory Aquino, Austin McKenzie, Emily Skeggs, Jonathan Majors, Fiona Dourif
Creator: Dustin Lance Black
Premieres: Monday, Feb. 27, 9 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)

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