It’s easy to reduce any major historical turning point to a simplistic battle between the forces of good and evil, but life’s more complicated than that. Major events don’t materialize out of thin air, and even people working generally on the same side of a fight aren’t going to get along all the time, in every way. Humans rarely want the exact same thing, on the exact same schedule, as one another, and well-intentioned crusaders can differ wildly on tactics as much as timing.
Historical dramas are usually averse to capturing social struggles at their messiest, and as a result most of them come across as noble bores: entertainment you’re meant to consume because it’s good for you, and not because it’s actually good entertainment. But When We Rise, ABC’s new miniseries about the gay civil rights movement, isn’t TV kale or spinach. It’s as lively as it is poignant, and at its best when it’s demonstrating how the personal and the political can overlap, and how they can come into conflict.
Written by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and directed across its four chapters by Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, Tommy Schlamme, and Black himself, When We Rise (it debuts tonight at 9, with additional episodes airing on Wednesday through Friday this week) covers five decades in the gay rights movement, focusing primarily on a trio of real-life figures, who are played by different actors for the first two parts and then for the second: Cleve Jones (Austin McKenzie, then Guy Pearce), Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs, then Mary-Louise Parker), and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, then Michael K. Williams). Through the three of them — plus Roma’s partner Diane, who’s a minor figure in the early going, but takes on greater prominence in the second half when she’s played by Rachel Griffiths — Black is able to explore the many complicated facets of the movement, and the ways that any brand of social resistance ultimately depends on the building of coalitions.
Roma, for instance, starts out as a more generic feminist activist, reluctant to admit even to herself that she’s gay. As she begins to make peace with her true sexual identity, she recognizes that NOW leaders are reluctant to embrace lesbian members for fear that battling homophobia on top of sexism will make their jobs harder. So she moves to San Francisco, where she discovers that the gay women there want nothing to do with gay men, even if they have the same basic agenda. Cleve starts out just looking to enjoy San Francisco’s social scene after coming out to his therapist father (David Hyde Pierce, the first of many impressive cameos), who believes homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, but soon catches the activist bug through his friendships with both Roma and Harvey Milk(*). And black, Christian, Navy veteran Ken has to come to grips with the fact that none of his communities would want anything to do with him if they knew he was gay, even as there are few welcoming spaces for him in the local gay scene, where he’s chased out of an all-white bar, and feels uncomfortable at first when he stumbles into a drag club.
(*) Rather than recreate large chunks of a movie he already wrote, Black lets Milk exist mainly as a figure on the news. In general, the miniseries draws a line of fame past which they don’t try to cast actors to play the roles, so that Arliss Howard can do terrific work as Ted Olson, the former George W. Bush Solicitor General who wound up arguing on the side of same-sex marriage, but when the Clintons visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Guy Pearce just gets Forrest Gump’ed into archival footage from that day.
“We just lay low and wait for the world to catch up to us,” Ken’s eventual partner Richard (Sam Jaeger from Parenthood) tries arguing at one point, but others like Cleve and Roma are itching to fight, if only they can get a consensus on who’s fighting together and what the exact goals are.