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‘When We Rise’ Review: Why Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant, and Dee Rees’ Miniseries Should Have Been a Movie

ABC is giving a week of primetime to "When We Rise," but the limited series still gets ravaged by network time restrictions.


ABC/Eike Schroter

An onslaught of onscreen and offscreen talent unite with a clear sense of purpose in the limited series “When We Rise.” An examination of gay and women’s rights over three decades and how their causes conflict and coalesce, Dustin Lance Black’s new ABC offering emphasizes what’s possible when oppressed minorities come together and fight back against a malicious patriarchy.

There’s no shortage of modern parallels at play, and ABC is counting on the public’s revived passion for protest to drive interest in a show that honors those who paved the way with picket signs and (mostly) passive resistance. The eight-episode series written by Black (mostly) does right by its honorable cause, but it suffers from the strictures of its format. A sprawling story creates an awkward combination of history lessons and personal stories, and broadcast standards prove far too restrictive. The result is a conglomeration of narratives that never reach their full potential.

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To ABC’s credit, “When We Rise” is one of the few “event series” that legitimately feels like an event. ABC is airing this four-part special over what would have been four consecutive nights. Without President Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday, February 28, the series would have aired Monday through Thursday, February 27 – March 2. Now it’s skipping Tuesday to allow for modern-day political discourse, and concluding on the third. The entire series will be aired in two-hour chunks, representing the collective work of directors Gus Van Sant (Part 1), Dee Rees (Part 2), Thomas Schlamme (Part 3), and the creator, Black, who helmed the finale (Part 4).


It’s an impressive group, and aside from veteran TV helmer Schlamme, they all come from film. That crossover is by now a familiar migration, and it’s seen its share of wins and losses. For every example of unprecedented cinematic craftsmanship, like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick,” there’s a confused, exhausting catastrophe like Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes.” Most successes come when there’s few restrictions and networks allow for longer or shorter episodes, and more or less than what traditional TV demands.

That’s not the case for “When We Rise.” Each part clocks at exactly 85 minutes (sans commercials), and you can feel scenes being cut short. The narrative strains to fit in dramatic moments, but time restrictions squeeze out poignancy and power. And every episode hews to the blunt screenwriting aesthetic that defines most broadcast fare: heavy on exposition, and willing to sacrifice confusing or ambiguous emotional moments for the sake of clarity. It’s a lethal set of rules for a show about outsiders.

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That doesn’t mean truth doesn’t fight its way in. The three main characters — Cleve (Austin P. McKenzie), Roma (Emily Skeggs), and Ken (Jonathan Majors) — are introduced via a shared interest in an issue of Life magazine discussing gay rights. Cleve, a young gay man in Phoenix, spots the magazine in his library and sneaks away with it. Roma flips through it as her plane takes off from a volunteer stint in Africa, and Ken has the issue dropped on his bunk in the belly of a naval ship outside Vietnam. Eventually, these three kids will collide in San Francisco, but the premiere lets them make their way there as naturally as it can — in the given time.

Each young performer has a standout moment or two, but it’s Majors who leaves a mark. In a restrained effort, his turn doesn’t abandon itself as the years shift. Even as Ken becomes increasingly courageous in his actions, leading town hall propositions and organizing the community, Majors remains stoic and poised, as a Navy officer would. He finds the emotional core of a scene quickly, essential when so many feel truncated, but doesn’t overplay his hand.


At the onset of the AIDS outbreak, Ken and his boyfriend, Richard (Sam Jaeger of “Parenthood”), agree to stop sleeping around, for fear of contracting what was then known as Case X or GRID. It’s a small decision of great significance. Not only is it a personal sacrifice to the way of life they’re still fighting to earn, but it extrapolates to so many more men facing a similar dilemma. Suddenly, sex equals death. Although the show says as much in other scenes, we don’t get enough time with Ken and Richard to feel the full weight of the choice beyond what the actors can muster on their own.

So stirring is Major’s performance I was sad to see him replaced by Michael K. Williams as an older Ken halfway through the series. (If you thought I’d ever be upset to see Williams show up in any capacity, you underestimate the talent and allure of one of Hollywood’s great character actors.) Still, the 10-year time jump in the middle of “When We Rise” illustrates a larger problem: The show suffers from odd and distracting aesthetic choices.

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What began with minor infractions (Harvey Milk is found dead, but face up instead of face down) then transitioned to strange oversights (a quarantined room door is left wide open, despite a nurse shouting that people need to stay out of the space) and finally creates chronology problems that are downright baffling. The three main roles are played by actors ranging from 23-27, but when we flash forward 10 years suddenly they’re being portrayed by people between the ages 49-52. That might have been more easily understood if the show didn’t continue using the same actors for other characters. Richard, for instance, is still played by Jaeger, and the added scruff and aging makeup doesn’t lessen the jarring impact of seeing him with a completely different partner. (Williams and Majors don’t even look alike.)


These flaws could be overlooked for the greater purpose of “When We Rise,” but the structure damns the programming to serve as a future prop for lazy teachers. Too many overtly political positions are forced into deeply personal moments. Too much exposition striving for accuracy overwhelms emotion. Too many minutes are removed from a story that needs a light touch to balance the heavy message.

Yet for all my bellyaching about the limited series being far too limited, “When We Rise” doesn’t necessarily need to be longer. Could this have worked as a TV series? Individual episodes certainly would be better given the necessary time to breathe, but there could be more potential in a film; We’ve seen many great examples dealing with similar issues, including Black and Van Sant’s own Oscar-winning feature, “Milk” (not to mention the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which may be even better.)

There’s a great film to be made from “When We Rise.” The battles between like-minded but separate progressive organizations illustrates how guarded and angry outsiders can be made to feel. The women fear bringing men into their movement because of the “baggage” their cause carries, and the men feel the same way. Yet the compromises both sides reach to come together shows how valuable their perspective and beliefs can be, especially in uniting behind basic human rights. If any one of these talented filmmakers took two hours to focus on the gay men’s and women’s rights movements in this way — rather than overwhelm the message by cramming in as many enraging sins as possible — the result could be a movie worth watching, again and again, for a week, a month, or years to come.

Grade: C+

“When We Rise” airs nightly at 9 p.m. on Monday, February 27, Wednesday, March 1, Thursday, March 2, and Friday March 3 on ABC.

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