If you thought San Francisco in the ’70s was still about hippies and Haight-Ashbury, ABC’s powerful new miniseries When We Rise is an eye-opener. As the Haight fell into squalor, the city’s reputation as a haven for outsiders lingered, drawing a new faction of young people to the area — men and women who would change America in ways not even they could imagine.
Their stories are told in When We Rise, a stirring, four-night miniseries from Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Rise weaves together the harrowing, hopeful journeys of real pioneering members of an evolving U.S. civil rights movement: LGBT activist Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce); women’s rights leader Roma Guy (Mary-Louise Parker); Guy’s wife Diane Jones (Rachel Griffiths), a nurse and social justice activist; soldier turned community organizer Ken Jones (Michael Kenneth Williams); and transgender activist Cecilia Chung (Ivory Aquino). As the five, along with their friends and associates, fought their own battles with self-identity and self-acceptance, their personal struggles and intertwined causes forged an impactful family and ushered in a new era of social justice.
Teaming with ABC for the project four years back, Black embarked on a year of research to find his angle, tracking down living, longtime activists from across a number of civil rights movements. “I started in the women’s movement, the black civil rights movement, the peace movement starting in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that’s where I arrived at the cast of real characters who you meet along the way in When We Rise,” Black says. “What I hope this show does is shows the American public where the bridges are … because they exist.
“I grew up in the South. I grew up in a religious home,” Black continues. “I grew up in a military home. I grew up in a conservative home. My family is still religious and Southern and conservative. I treasure them, and I treasure much of what I learned and how I was raised in that world. So I wrote this for my cousins and my aunts and my uncles. I wrote it for my family from that other America to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got more in common than you think, and we can actually speak the same language.’”
Augmenting the star power of its cast (Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell have small but meaningful roles), some of the mini’s most impactful performances come from the actors who portray the activists in their youth — Tony nominee Emily Skeggs (Fun Home) as Guy and her fellow stage actor Austin P. McKenzie as Cleve Jones, Yale drama student Jonathan Majors as Ken Jones and True Blood’s Fiona Dourif as Diane (say Dee-YON). Black hopes they — and the tenacious pioneers they play — motivate younger When We Rise viewers into action.
But not just younger viewers.
“You’re never too old to join the fight,” Black smiles. “There’s no age restriction on fighting for equality. I heard President Obama in his farewell speech say, ‘Yes We Can.’ I hope this show is, ‘And this is how.’ ‘We’ is the most important word in the title.”
When We Rise premieres Monday, Feb. 27 at 9/8c on ABC, then returns Wednesday March 1-3.