The fight for LGBTQ rights is a topic that inspires a great deal of passion, so it was more than understandable that “When We Rise” creator Dustin Lance Black got emotional on Tuesday morning when discussing the current-day impact upon his upcoming miniseries.
“I would give anything in the world for [the show] to be less topical,” he told journalists at ABC’s portion of Television Critics Association press tour. “But I’m not entirely surprised, because as a student of history I know that history is not a straight line. History is a pendulum.”
“When We Rise,” created by the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind “Milk,” is an effort to chronicle the gay rights movement over the course of eight episodes, from the Stonewall riots to modern day. Focusing on the real people who worked for equality, the cast is jam-packed with familiar faces, including Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Carrie Preston, Michael K. Williams, Ivory Aquino, Kevin McHale, Dylan Walsh, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Denis O’Hare, David Hyde Pierce, Rob Reiner, Pauley Perrette, TR Knight, William Sadler, Richard Schiff, Phylicia Rashad, Mary McCormack and a whole lot more.
In years past, Black noted, the parts gay characters were able to play on television fit into a pretty standard mode. “You were allowed to be a supporting character if you were funny, then you were allowed to be dramatic if you die. It was important for us to show that it was possible to live a life of purpose and survive and thrive,” he said.
It was four years ago that Black learned ABC was looking to make a show “in this area,” and began researching the real stories of activists who drove the movement for civil rights, including the women’s movement and black rights movements.
Cleve Jones (played by Austin P. McKenzie in his younger years and Guy Pearce as an older man), he said, became a necessary character to include because while the typical working lifespan of an activist lasts three to five years, Jones was actively working in the community for decades. “My mother calls him the Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement,” Black added.
In general, Black leaned towards focusing on people who were still alive, “because I hope that this generation looks to these people and is inspired. We need those people now more than ever.”
And while the team hopes that the miniseries might serve as an educational tool in the future, the goal was to create an authentic depiction of that story. One factor in making that possible — breaking a long-standing rule against using the word “fag” on television, a slur that gay people have heard for generations. “I said to ABC that I don’t know how we do this show authentically without saying the word ‘fag,'” Black said. “They stood next to me and fought for us to say this word.”
Star Rachel Griffiths compared the series to her experience watching “Roots” as a young girl in Australia. “I didn’t feel like I was getting a lecture,” she said. “But I understood what it was like to be owned by another person, through watching and experiencing the authentic lives of other people. As actors, that’s all we can do, is inhabit characters with our full humanity.”
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Black said that while he wrote “Milk” “for myself,” he very much wrote “When We Rise” thinking about his conservative southern Christian family — and that’s why the broad-reaching ABC, in his eyes, was the only home for the project. “Historically, ABC has been a network we can trust to tell us family stories. This is the story of my family and other families, being told to and written for families,” he said.
For he genuinely hopes that “When We Rise” is a show that can unite audiences, rather than divide them (despite mentioning that the series is already under attack by the “alt-right”). “Every person is a minority and this show is about how we are all related,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show,” he added. “I didn’t write this show for half a country.”
“When We Rise” airs Monday, Feb. 27 – Thursday, Mar. 2 on ABC.