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‘When We Rise’ review: Miniseries on arc of LGBT movement and important show

Miniseries about the early years of the gay-rights movement (Credit: ABC Television Network)

THE MINISERIES “When We Rise”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 9 p.m., then Wednesday through Friday at 9 p.m. on ABC/7.

GRADE B-

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Written by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for the “Milk” screenplay in 2009, this is about the history of the LGBT movement since the early ’70s, ending in 2015 with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The story follows gay rights activist Cleve Jones — “Rise” is based on his memoir — from his arrival in San Francisco as an 18-year-old (played by Austin McKenzie) to his later years in the fight for an AIDS vaccine, and then on to marriage equality (played during that stretch by Guy Pearce). Over these years, his story interlaces with that of LGBT activist Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs/Mary Louise Parker), and African-American LGBT activist and community organizer Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors/Michael K. Williams).

MY SAY “When We Rise” steps right into the culture wars and if there was an Emmy for perfect timing, then “Rise” is the winner.  This comes at precisely the moment some LGBT Americans fear the hard-fought rights they have secured may not be so secure after all. In fact, when seen in total, “When We Rise” does suggest — at one point even states — that the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but the arc can still break a few times along the way. People can protest and courts can rule, but that doesn’t mean prejudice and bigotry magically disappear. They don’t. “When We Rise” is really about the necessity of vigilance, which can be a lifelong process — in this instance, the life of Cleve Jones.

Therefore, “Rise” is important television — that’s beyond dispute — and didactic television, and groundbreaking television, too. An eight-hour miniseries on this subject and this close to the court rulings that shaped its recent history? That’s simply unheard of on a broadcast network.

Important, groundbreaking, didactic and timely, but what about good? Believe me on this one: The answer here is a little more complicated.

For starters, “When We Rise” has a habit of reversing the natural order of effective plotting, by putting moral before story, outcome before journey, destiny before character, cart before horse. You usually know where you’re going long before you get there, and told how to feel in the process. The synth music cues and the dialogue follows in perfect soundbite-sized speeches: “Maybe we are here for something bigger than ourselves” . . . “If we ever want to be free, we have to start fighting” . . . “I can’t think of anything more mold-breaking than a lesbian having a baby without male interference.”

You start to suspect, then fear, you’re settling in for eight hours of moralizing. There are moments — probably too many of them — when that fear is justified.

“Rise” can also be an impassioned, fervent, urgent, self-righteous civics lesson. The fourth part alone covers the Defense of Marriage Act, the United States v. Windsor court case, the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling declaring section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, leading to same-sex marriage in 50 states. There are also longish discursive chunks on citywide health care in San Francisco, related union negotiations, rent policy and a health ordinance.

Because a series this important shouldn’t be ignored, maybe the best approach to “When We Rise” is a smorgasbord one. There are four nights, and in a sense, four separate films, covering four separate but related stories. The strongest night is Thursday, the weaker parts are the first two. And despite that long roll call of gay rights legislation, the fourth part may be the most engaging of all. Meanwhile, the big guns — the boldface-name actors such as Pearce, Parker and Williams — arrive late in the week. All the performances are good.

So pick and choose. You’ll learn something, and experience a bit of TV history in the process.

BOTTOM LINE Important television, but also wildly, maddeningly uneven TV, too. 

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