Dustin Lance Black has observed in films and TV shows dealing with the LGBT community that the characters discussing key issues have been supporting players who often supply the humor. Or, the main character, as in his award-winning film “Milk,” dies at the end.
His new ABC miniseries, “When We Rise,” is designed to show that the majority of people involved with trying to make change end up living a life of purpose. They survive and thrive. He especially wants that message in “When We Rise” to be an inspiration for a new generation.
“For some young people, they need to know that because they’re living in areas where they don’t find a lot of acceptance. For others, what they need to see is over the course of any social justice movement, there is backlash. You see that several times in this series,” Black says. “And there’s ways to confront backlash for a young generation. There’s ways to keep the pendulum from swinging back too far. And I hope what they’ve learned from ‘When We Rise’ is that the ‘We’ is the most important word in the title.
“The way to push back and to succeed is to do it together and to understand interconnectedness of social justice movements. I need a young generation to see that and understand that.”
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Black, who was born in Sacramento and raised in Salinas, had done a massive amount of research to write his Oscar-winning screenplay for the 2008 release “Milk.” The work he did for that film about California’s first openly gay elected official was only a preview of all the time he would spend preparing to write the ABC miniseries, “When We Rise.”
The production chronicles the personal and political struggles of a family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. civil rights movement. The fact a network was even considering such a project was a surprise to Black. He had to fight to get a studio to make “Milk” only four years earlier.
Black was so determined to tell Milk’s story he financed the filming with his credit card.
“And all of a sudden, here was ABC looking to do something in this area, and so I jumped. I think it was a very important thing to do,” Black says. “I would give anything in the world for it to be less topical right now. I never could have imagined that it would land in this moment. I’m not entirely surprised because, as a student of history, we know that history is not a straight line.
“We know that history is a pendulum, and … I knew this kind of moment might happen. I’m grateful for ABC’s courage.”
Putting together the right structure to tell the stories in “When We Rise” took Black years to complete. He spent a year trying to find the right collection of true stories about those who were involved in different civil rights movements.
His research included the women’s movement, the black civil rights movement and the peace movement starting in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
The stories he selected are being told through: Guy Pearce (“Memento”) as LGBT activist Cleve Jones; Mary-Louise Parker (“Weeds”) as women’s rights leader Roma Guy; Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”) as her wife, social justice activist Diane; Michael K. Williams (”The Wire”) as community organizer Ken Jones; and Ivory Aquino as transgender activist Cecelia Chung.
Looking at all of these different movements to focus on the LGBT community works because Cleve Jones was involved in so many civil rights movements. He provides the connection that holds all of the stories together.
Pearce was able to meet with the real Jones to get an understanding of how he would play him. He learned that it takes a special person to work as an activist, especially one who has been involved as long as Jones.
Black wrote “Milk” because he thought there were young kids out there who probably didn’t know they had a forefather who had fought for them. Having grown up in a religious, conservative home, Black understood these stories might not be topics in every home. He wrote the ABC miniseries for his cousins, aunts, uncles and the rest of his family. That story will be personal enough that Black expects the miniseries will then connect with all kinds of families.
Black found in his research that it takes a real selflessness to be able to survive the numerous defeats and victories that come with life-changing movements. And, it’s not just the reaction from those opposing the movement but often an even more violent backlash from supporters.
“These are incredibly unique, strong, special people. And it was important to me, in deciding who to depict, that many, if not most, are still alive, because I do hope that a new generation looks to these people for inspiration and we can find ourselves with more leaders like this who are able to work in these movements for broader social justice their entire lives,” Black says. “We need those people now more than ever.
“I think it’s about time for us to be able to tell our LGBT stories, to be taken seriously, to even be able to be political, and to show these people that do that can survive and thrive.”
When We Rise
- 9 -11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 - March 3, KFSN (Channel 30.1)