ABC miniseries ‘When We Rise’ tells the story of the gay rights movement

Crowds gather to fight for their rights in When We Rise.
Photo: ABC / Courtesy

Two and a half stars

When We Rise February 27, March 1-3, 9 p.m., ABC.

The ABC miniseries When We Rise sets out an ambitious agenda for itself, to chronicle nearly 40 years of the gay-rights movement in eight hours (minus commercials), while sticking to broadcast-TV standards. Created by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar), Rise focuses on three main characters, all living in San Francisco, as avatars for the entire movement, from its earliest stirrings following the Stonewall uprising to the Supreme Court battle over gay marriage. The real-life trio (who were all consultants on the series) are played by two sets of actors, dividing the series evenly, which turns out to be one of the show’s biggest weaknesses.

The most prominent is Cleve Jones (played as a young man by Austin P. McKenzie and as an older man by Guy Pearce), a high-profile activist whose memoir provides part of the show’s source material. He’s joined by Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs/Mary-Louise Parker) and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors/Michael K. Williams), whose roles in the movement take place more behind the scenes. Although the second half of the series features famous actors in the main roles, the first half works better, capturing the fire and passion that drove young people to fight for rights they never imagined they could have. The acting is uneven throughout, but Skeggs is excellent as the young Roma, successfully integrating her personal journey with her emerging political conscience.

The show has trouble making those connections elsewhere, though, and the characters are often stuck with time-filling personal subplots that do nothing but distract from the major social change surrounding them. Black and his collaborators tend to write either blunt, on-the-nose speeches about civil rights or wispy emotional exchanges that are just as unsubtle. At the same time, there’s a strong urgency to the drama, whether it involves protesting discrimination or simply reaching out to another person.

It’s jarring, then, to watch the characters from the first half become nearly unrecognizable in the second, as the two sets of actors bear almost no resemblance to one another, either physically or in the way they carry themselves. Narratively, both Roma and Ken find themselves sidelined from the movement for significant amounts of time as they struggle with their personal lives. And when the characters do participate in major historical events, the show often awkwardly inserts them into archival footage.

Adhering to the constraints of network TV means the show has to tone down its racier scenes, but Rise doesn’t shy away from the realities of gay life, including in its wrenching depiction of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. As a tool for outreach, the show is admirable, but as drama, it falls short of its ambitions.

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