Four part mini-series When We Rise introduces us to the lives of many different characters based on real civil rights activists from the 60s and 70s, highlighting each of their experiences as an LGBTQIA person in a time of violence and hatred, but also a time of momentous change - including the gay liberation movement, anti-war efforts, and women’s rights protests.
In the first chapter, a gay teenager named Cleve Jones is trying to resist his homophobic psychologist father pressuring him to resolve his “illness” - which results in Cleve moving to San Francisco, the supposed mecca for gay liberation. We also get to meet Roma Guy, a young humanitarian who is alienated by her women’s group due to her (albeit secret) homosexuality, and also ends up in SF. Finally, we meet Ken Jones - a secretly gay and grieving military man, who is placed in the same city to lead a difficult diversity program while himself struggling with racism and homophobia in the Navy.
Stonewall has just occurred in New York, but while each person we meet is seeking a more accepting place to call home, they fail to find it in San Francisco, and soon realise that they must rise up in order to make change.
It’s a history lesson, but enveloped in a palatable casing of base-level human experience. You learn with utmost empathy about struggle and passion within these characters as you watch their lives unfold.
There’s plenty, but here’s just five reasons why ‘When We Rise’ is worth a watch.
1. The cast is just so darn impressive
The cast is absolutely enormous, and the creators have taken great care in not only choosing a diverse and historically accurate cast, but also a cast who care a great deal about the subject matter.
We see well-known names and faces such as Mary Louise Parker, Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, and David Hyde Pierce, but we also see young faces who are likely to carry on the next generation of the LGBTQIA fight.
As a local bonus, there’s also a bunch of Aussie actors in When We Rise: Rachael Griffiths plays Diane, a passionate activist for women’s rights and equality and the wife of protagonist Roma, and Guy Pearce - of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert fame - plays the adult Cleve Jones.
2. It's made by the people who made Milk
Milk - the 2008 film about influential LGBTQIA activist Harvey Milk - is one of the most adored biopics in recent years.
Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, you'll be thrilled to know that the duo is back—Van Sant has directed an episode of When We Rise and acted as an executive producer on the entire series, and Black has written the screenplay.
The topic of Harvey Milk hits around the end of the first episode, and you'll be at ease knowing that what you’re watching is not only a topic of passion for the creators, but they also have a wealth of knowledge. It honestly shows.
3. It helps us draw parallels between the LGBTQIA plight today VS then
Now, the 1970s really aren’t that long ago, but the community has made great strides toward one day achieving equality.
With that being said, it’s important to remind ourselves that many of the campaigns, statements, and sentiments of homophobic and transphobic people today strongly echo those of their predecessors over 40 years ago—in some cases, excuses that are made for hatred of LGBTQIA people are word-for-word the same.
While it’s easy to be placated by thinking that life is much better in 2017, it’s important to remind ourselves that there are still many battles to be fought, injustices to be faced, and that LGBTQIA people are still experiencing bigotry, hatred, and violence.
Listen to the words of the homophobes, the sexists, the transphobes pictured in When We Rise - you’ve more than likely heard one of their bigoted sentences said in your lifetime, too. It’s a good reminder that being vocal and present is still necessary even today.
4. It acknowledges that oppression exists within marginalised communities, too
One of the things that you’ll notice first and foremost about When We Rise is that the creators have chosen not to gloss over the fact that even progressive communities trying to better their situation often trampled on other marginalised communities in their fight for equality.
Watching Roma being outcast from the a women’s group she’d worked so hard for, because she was a lesbian? Emotionally tough. Watching Ken’s constant battles because not only was he gay and having to hide it, but he’s also a black man? Beyond heartbreaking.
It's hard to watch, but it’s fantastic that it’s being acknowledged as it makes the need for intersectionality shine bright. When We Rise highlights the importance of intersectionality in a powerful way that only makes us more socially conscious.
5. It's important to be aware of the painful past
Australia is about to hold its annual Mardi Gras, which is without a doubt a time of celebration. It’s a time for the LGBTQIA community to come together and enjoy who we are, and salute the future in a hopeful and positive sense.
However - whether you see the event as a celebration of the LGBTQIA community’s existence and future, or even if you just see it an enormous glittery party - Mardi Gras always has and always will be a political event.
When We Rise helps the LGBTQIA community, as well as allies to the cause, fully comprehend the very real and very heartbreaking events that managed to get the community to where it is today.
The politics of Mardi Gras are lengthy and complex, but it’s important to know about the past, y’know? if we’re not confronted with it now, we risk making the same mistakes in the future. It’s incredibly difficult, but When We Rise focusing solely on lived experiences can help us fully realise the human-level consequences of inequality and bigotry, and help us realise when we too need to ‘rise up’.
Simply put, When We Rise is a must-watch. Comprehending the LGBTQIA struggle through human stories is emotionally weighty, but still, it makes for satisfying - even enjoyable - viewing, particularly in knowing your understanding is for hugely significant reasons.
When We Rise is a part of SBS’s 2017 Mardi Gras season and episode 1 is streaming right now, on SBS On Demand. The series will then make its TV premiere on Saturday 11 March at 8.30pm on SBS.