When We Rise a Roots for the LGBTQ com­mu­nity

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - HAL BOEDEKER

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. (ABC will use the Os­cars to pro­mote au­da­cious sched­ul­ing: 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.

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 pre­mière. 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.

AN­DREW TESTA, NYT

Dustin Lance Black’s "When We Rise" is a 50-year his­tory of the gay rights move­ment.

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