Anyone disheartened by today’s politics can look to ABC’s “When We Rise” for a primer on how activism changes the world.
This four-part docudrama vividly depicts how gay and lesbian activists carried on for five decades before the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in 2015. They weathered family scorn, brutal attacks, exhausting discrimination and a plague.
A “Roots” for the LGBTQ community, “When We Rise” is the most adult exploration of those lives ever presented on broadcast TV. It’s a TV landmark for its emotional power, frank approach and superb acting. The eight-hour series airs at 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Friday.
“When We Rise” makes its political points personally by portraying lives with complexity and heart. The central figures are LGBT activist Cleve Jones, women’s rights leader Roma Guy and African American community organizer Ken Jones. Viewers see how they grow from young, diffident figures to determined, outspoken leaders.
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Young actors bring poignancy and yearning to the roles: Austin McKenzie as Cleve, Emily Skeggs (“Fun Home”) as Roma and Jonathan Majors as Ken. Then older actors step in with fierce portrayals: Guy Pearce as Cleve, Mary-Louise Parker as Roma and Michael K. Williams as Ken.
Pearce acts with a fiery intensity that keeps “When We Rise” edgy and unapologetic. Cleve has wrenching scenes with his father (David Hyde Pierce), who sees homosexuality as a sickness to be treated. Cleve says of AIDS: “If we are to survive, we cannot die in silence.”
There’s first-rate work from everyone starting with executive producers Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and Gus Van Sant, who directed the two-hour premiere. The third part, focused on family, is especially thoughtful.
The big-name cast includes Rachel Griffiths, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell, Rob Reiner, T.R. Knight, Phylicia Rashad, Mary McCormack, Arliss Howard and Debra Winger. They all commit to this stirring, sentimental epic.
After the Pulse attack in Orlando, “When We Rise” describes activism as “one struggle, one fight.” It’s surprisingly hopeful, but you’re going to shed many tears, too.