ABC LGBT Miniseries 'When We Rise' a Hit at Screening But All Too Timely

Eike Schroter/ABC

"I would give anything for this to be less topical," says writer-creator Dustin Lance Black.

A screening of the first two-hour episode of ABC’s upcoming miniseries When We Rise garnered enthusiastic applause at a Los Angeles screening Saturday night, even as the comments on online trailers demonstrated that the series’ sweeping look at LGBT progress over the last 45 years coexists with a political climate in retrograde.

Indeed, although two of the key characters in the 1970s-set episode, veterans of other political movements, share a slight laugh as they remind each other of Martin Luther King’s famed aphorism that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," the events surrounding the presidential election have cast a shadow on King’s confidence in forward progress.

“I would give anything for this to be less topical,” said writer-creator Dustin Lance Black in a brief interview. “I hope this [show] will serve as an inspiration.”

Black spoke with a reporter after a Q&A that followed the screening in which he and Gus Van Sant, who directed the episode, discussed why and how they came to revisit material that overlapped with 2008’s feature Milk, which told the story of Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected official, who won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and was assassinated by a conservative, recently resigned member of that board just 10 months later.

The screening, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was sponsored by Film Independent, and the Q&A moderated by Elvis Mitchell.

Van Sant called the experience of revisiting the locations and period “deja vu-ish,” as it was for this reporter, who briefly lived in the Bay Area just a few years after the events depicted in the episode. The script and lensing aptly captured San Francisco’s then-grittiness, and the sense that random attacks were possible on the street at any time.

Although not depicted in the screened episode, by 1981 gay men in that city routinely carried whistles and Mace to defend against possible violence.

The episode and feature are set in the '70s, but subsequent installments of the miniseries follow the rise of LGBT rights through to roughly present day. Black and Van Sant wanted to tell the story through the eyes of people who had remained activists through the decades, and found that Cleve Jones — a Milk protege who appears somewhat incidentally in the film — was one of the few people who fit the bill, hence the partial overlap between the miniseries and their feature outing.

The others who make up what Black called a “makeshift family” as a throughline include lesbian activists Del Martin and Roma Guy and gay activist Ken Jones.

As that listing might suggest, the series’ first episode is more LG than BT, and whether trans rights make more of an appearance in the program may not be evident until the last episode, given the more recent rise of that allied but distinct movement.

In any event, family was evidently a potent theme for Black: He described his amazement at discovering that ABC had recently been optioning LGBT history properties, since ABC years ago had been a “family network” that was the only channel his conservative, Southern family allowed him to watch without supervision.

Now, he said — after noting how supportive the network had been to work with — he hopes that his family will watch this offering and meet his “other family.” The eight-hour series airs as event programming on four consecutive nights starting Feb. 27.