On Friday June 26th, 2015, the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry nationwide, sending the country into a state of celebration and, in some places, fervent opposition. Although the White House may have been lit up in rainbow lights that day in solidarity, the SCOTUS’s decision wasn’t unanimous; it was a 5 to 4 vote. Ever since then, the rights of the LGBTQ community have been under assault, in situations that both do and do not receive national attention.
“When We Rise,” ABC’s four night TV special, begins in the ‘70s to tell the story of a few individuals who were fighting for these rights, which did not end with the right to a marriage certificate. These years were by no means the beginning of the struggle for the LGBTQ community, but a time in which issues surrounding sexuality — and the right to love and/or sleep with someone of any gender — were receiving more national attention than ever before. It travels through time to the beginning and growing fear of the AIDS crisis, often focusing on cities. While most of the people themselves are fictionalized — though the show does follow the story of Harvey Milk’s rise, fame and assassination — the challenges that they face feel more relevant now than ever.
At times, the stories in “When We Rise” are woven together with precision and delicacy; at others, they are full of schmaltz and sentimentality (it includes the line “Your summer of love turned into a winter of heroin a long time ago.”) In the opening episodes the show reveals the dislike and exclusion of lesbians and other queer women in certain groups in the women’s rights movement. But the rendering of this feels like a tongue-in-cheek move; the women who voice those views sound more like the white women from “The Help” whose ideas are also framed to be laughed at at times, rather than people with harmful views who were fracturing a movement. However, the writing of the show captures the flipsides of issue like these with more accuracy: the reluctance to associate with terms like lesbian or dyke even if there is a personal connection to the connotations. A few quiet but powerful scenes show a black man’s progress in fighting racism in the military while still having to deal with the pervasiveness of homophobia — all while keeping his sexuality a secret.
The writers of the show are more successful in showing how the struggle for LGBTQ rights was impacted by and affected by other movements for social progress — the Women’s Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Antiwar movement — than it is in showing complications of personal stories in such a short amount of space and time. While the performances are fine, they skew towards feeling like those hokey reenactments in historical documentaries.
“When We Rise” isn’t always the heart-wrenching drama that it often tries to be. It’s overtly sentimental, several makeout scenes are awkwardly high-school worthy, and there are subplots revolving around the lesbians that feel more like a joke’s punchline than an attempt at a real story. But the show does get a few things right: the momentum of youth, the importance of physical spaces for queer communities, the fierce pride and joy of loving acceptance — and, perhaps most chillingly, the shock that a gunshot-like sound makes in the middle of an upbeat scene because we already believe that someone would threaten the safety of those involved because of their quiet happiness.