A demonstration was taking place on a busy corner of the Castro District, the downtown San Francisco neighborhood largely populated by members of the gay community. A long-haired man stood on a soapbox, rallying a small crowd to rise up and resist authority.
It could’ve been a scene from any of the recent protests that have arisen in the stormy first weeks of the Donald Trump presidency. But peering closer— at the ‘70s garb, the cameras recording the scene— reveals that this was a re-creation of another, similarly tumultuous, time.
A small film crew zeroed in on a conversation between two men at the protest. Director Gus Van Sant yelled “Cut,” while screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, standing nearby, nodded. The two filmmakers— the forces behind the Oscar-winning 2008 biopic “Milk”— had reunited on this drizzly Saturday morning in May to capture the moment of awakening for key activists in the battle for LGBT rights.
That moment and the filmmakers’ efforts can be seen Monday in “When We Rise,” ABC’s ambitious, four-part miniseries chronicling more than 40 years of the personal and political struggles of a group of pioneers in that fight.
One of those who will be watching themselves depicted on-screen is community organizer Ken Jones, who stood near Black and Van Sant, quietly surveying the scene.
“It’s almost unbelievable that this is happening,” Jones said. “Our stories are so important to us, and everyone is going to see it. I am beside myself.”
A Vietnam War veteran whose own journey of activism was intermittently hijacked by severe bouts of depression, alcoholism and drug use, Jones was particularly excited that he was being played by Michael Kenneth Williams. “He scares me he’s so good,” says Jones of the intense, acclaimed star who has had memorable roles in “The Wire” and “The Night Of.”
In addition to Williams, the eight-hour project features a formidable cast including Guy Pearce as Cleve Jones (the force behind the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt), Mary-Louise Parker as women’s rights activist Roma Guy, and Rachel Griffiths as her social justice advocate wife, Diane. Guest stars include Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Debra Winger, David Hyde Pierce, Carrie Preston and Phylicia Rashad.
The four central characters, who were all involved in different causes, found a common bond that transformed them into a more powerful united force.
Black, who won the original screenplay Oscar for “Milk,” created the series and stressed that “When We Rise” is not only the story of the LGBT struggle.
“I named the series ‘When We Rise’ four years ago, and designed it by recognizing people who came from other social justice movements,” said Black in a recent telephone interview. “It was about the power we had by recognizing our intersections.”
But as the project nears its debut, Black and the producers are confronting a variable they never anticipated: Trump.
“When We Rise” is launching just days after Trump withdrew federal protection on transgender bathroom use in public schools. The move has caused an uproar from gay activists and others. Singer Jackie Evancho, who performed at Trump’s inauguration and has a transgender sister, has asked to speak to Trump.
Also, many key members of Trump’s administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, chief advisor Steve Bannon and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions have, in the past, opposed expanding LGBT rights. Several initial actions by the new administration, including a controversial travel ban and calls for deportation of immigrants in the country illegally, have sparked upheaval and protests.
“I never would have wished for this moment in our country, and the divisive rhetoric that has come along with it,” Black said. “I never would have wished for this show to be as necessary as it is now.”
He said “When We Rise” has already been targeted by the right wing: “They haven’t even seen it yet, but they are just going by the trailer. They are claiming on social media that these stories aren’t true, that this is all fiction. This is insidious because the best way to destroy a people is to destroy their history.”
He continued: “I worked incredibly hard for four years to make sure these stories are true. I included archival footage to remind the audience that this is real.”
Because of the political climate, Black believes “When We Rise” has transcended its origins as a dramatic chronicle of a moment in history, and has become a call to action.
“This is not the first time people of diversity have faced a backlash — not by a long shot,” he said. “That is also the pattern of equality and social justice movements. It’s never a straight line, it is a pendulum. We have to do the work necessary to keep the pendulum from swinging too far back. This series is a road map to how that is done.”
In a phone interview last week, Ken Jones noted the timeliness of “When We Rise.”
“This show is even more important in more ways than we could have imagined,” Jones said. “One of the words I’m hearing now as I go around the city is ‘intersectionality,’ and that means showing up and becoming invested in other people’s interests that may not be yours. That’s a good thing. This is where we’re moving and I’m glad this show is landing in that discussion.”
Roma Guy, who co-founded the San Francisco Women’s Building, expects viewer response will likely be heightened in the current climate because of Trump. “The reaction was going to be intense no matter who was elected president,” she said. “But now it will be at another level.”
David Marko, vice president of movies and miniseries for ABC, said the network hopes that the trajectory of personal tales chronicled by “When We Rise” will resonate with a wide audience.
“We were not interested in the national story so much,” Marko said. “We wanted to focus on the people in this one area who were in the trenches. They had better stories, which is the most important element.”
Black applauded ABC’s commitment: “LGBT people have been denied a popularized version of our history for our entire lives, for generations. It’s not like TV networks and movie studios and book publishers have been racing to purchase and distribute LGBT stories. I had to use my credit card to finance ‘Milk.’ ”
The writer-director is still optimistic that “When We Rise” will appeal to a mainstream audience---including Trump supporters — because of its focus on family, emotion and perseverance.
“I’m interested in reaching out to people who voted for Trump because I know most of my family did,” he said. “I grew up in the South in a conservative family. I love them to death and they are not attacking this show, which is about love and family. That’s the common language between our two Americas. I believe many people who voted for Trump will love this show and the families they meet.”
That belief extends to the president himself. “I think if Donald Trump took the time to watch, there’s a good chance he would connect with it.”