Apr 18, 2018

[TV] When We Rise Review

When the docudrama series When We Rise was announced, I figured it would be a sort of more serious version of Pride, which in itself was still serious but also quite entertaining. When it comes to tackling LGBT content, I find that the US entertainment industry can hit things pretty heavily when they decide to go for a serious tone.

When We Rise was pretty serious indeed and tried to anchor the narrative of the rise of the LGBT rights movement by focusing on a specific set of characters who get to witness different parts of the story as things come together. It's a seemingly traditional approach to things but it applied quite well in this story.

I sort of expected things to end with maybe the first march centered around the Stonewall Riots but it actually went on for much longer. This may or may not have been a good decision but it remains a largely powerful piece.

Synopsis: When We Rise is an 8-part American documentary drama series about the rise of the LGBT rights movement in the US as created by Dustin Lance Black. The scope of the story tracks the events that led up to the Stonewall Riots but go as far as the gay marriage ruling of 2013.

The story begins in 1972 as we are introduced to various characters that turn out to be LGBT when they first move to San Francisco to be among other gay people in the community that was still forming in the area at the time. This comes with a lot of tricky moments like how lesbians initially worked within feminist movements like the National Organization for Women but later get rejected because of being different. African-American sailor Ken (Michael K. Williams) comes to terms with his homosexuality. And the stories go on.

Things lead up to Harvey Milk running for a seat on the Board of Supervisor just as the Moral Majority takes a stand against LGBT people as well. And by the time we get to 1981 of couse we have to touch on the discovery of HIV / AIDS and how it was thought to be a disease somehow related to being gay. All the while you have these disparate groups learning to organize and figuring out how to start to really fight for the rights that they deserve.

What I Liked: As a docudrama feature, this series is pretty epic. We've seen different movies and TV shows make reference to some of the events covered in this series but not all of them together. And the fact that they brought all of this together in a well-crafted television experience will definitely go a long way towards ensuring that future generations better appreciate the struggles of the past that allow for the rights that they enjoy now.

And the series managed to gather a great collection of talent to bring these stories to life. Naturally a lot of the story sort of weighs on the shoulders of Cleve Jones, as portrayed by Guy Pearce. I'm not quite the biggest Pearce fan over his rather diverse career but he did pretty well here as the anchor for the story.

What Could Have Been Better: The initial pacing of the series kept things firmly centered in 1972 for the most part. And I think things felt fairly consistent still until the fourth episode. But then things started to jump forward signifcantly as they had to get out of the 80's and find a way to ensure that the series would end with the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. I appreciate the desire to go that far but maybe it would have worked better as a longer series as I feel like the events began to take greater importance over the individual arcs of the characters that we had been following for the first few episodes.

So the second half of the show may feature events that are a bit more familiar to most as they were still more or less in recent memory, it felt like it was more like a clip show more than anything else. This is especially true for the plot thread about the legal battle for gay marriage rights. That was certainly a subject that I wish they had devoted more time for but instead it was only puncutated by a few arguments here and there about legal strategies.

TL;DR: When We Rise is still an important piece of television and a great way to experience (or re-experience) LGBT history in an interesting way. The series feels both a bit too long for the initial story but also too short to cover everything it tried to do. So in the end the series still gets a good 4 memories of those who have lost their lives without seeing the fruits of their labors out of a possible 5.


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