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Recap: When We Rise - Night 1

The four-part miniseries “When We Rise” kicked off last night on ABC with an emotional bang. We were introduced to the real life characters that will shape eight hours of television and tell the stories of an entire generation of people. It’s a miniseries that was carefully and thoughtfully laid out by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. He researched and uncovered the real life stories of several individuals who helped shape our nation. Some people are more well-known than others, but each brings a unique perspective to a movement that changed America.

The first person we meet is Cleve Jones, an already well-known figure in LGBT rights and HIV activism. He is introduced to the audience as a teenager living in Phoenix, AZ with his parents. It is clear that he has activism in his blood from the beginning as we first see him passing out anti-war flyers at a rally. We later meet his father who is a mental health professional and believes homosexuality is a disease that can be cured psychologically. Cleve comes out and, as expected, his father vows to help cure him. This forces Cleve to leave the house and head to San Francisco.

His time in San Francisco is met with struggle, as he doesn’t have a job, food or a place to live. Cleve eventually starts living with a group of LGBT youth, all with similar stories. At one point he considers leaving San Francisco and the country all together to find a better environment to live in. Cleve is trying to navigate his way through San Francisco but is tired of the mistreatment and discrimination. Eventually he meets Roma and they find common ground in their activism. Just when you think Cleve is giving up he realizes his purpose. He is not going to leave for something better; instead he is going to stay and fight to make San Francisco the place he wants to be.

The next character we meet is Roma Guy. She is a young woman finishing a tour in the Peace Corps in West Africa. While there she has developed a strong bond with another woman named Diane. It is clear that they have feelings for each other but when her time in the Peace Corps is over, Roma goes back to her closeted life in the United States. Living in Boston, Roma has taken an active role in women’s rights and is a part of the then-homophobic National Organization of Women. Even though she doesn’t come out, Roma decides that Boston is not for her and heads cross country for San Francisco. While there, Roma continues her work for women’s rights and meets many lesbians along the way. She develops a relationship with another woman and in doing so is forced to come face to face with the reality that she loves women. It’s a reality that allows her to be the best version of herself. Roma is happy and comfortable, and just as things in Roma’s life are stabilizing she gets a shock when Diane shows up at her door. There is undoubtedly more to come with that story.

The final major character that we meet is Ken Jones. He is a young African-American man serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. We quickly learn that Ken is a gay man forced to hide his identity because of the rules of the military. He gets romantically involved with another sailor but unfortunately it is short lived, as his partner is killed in combat. Ken is not only grieving but he also has to shelter some of that grief for his own protection and wellbeing. Soon after that Ken gets offered a promotion and an opportunity to get stationed near San Francisco. It is revealed that Ken like our other characters, also has a history of activism. He has been involved in the civil rights movement and marched with the Black Panthers. He is put in a position that allows him to work for civil rights and still serve in the Navy. It is quite apparent that San Francisco is a world that Ken is not used to or familiar with. He knows that he is gay but you can see the uneasiness that he carries with him. At one point Ken walks into a gay bar and is the only Black person in there. He is met with disapproving looks and blatant racism. This moment is a reminder that even within oppressed groups, not everything is harmonious. At another point Ken is in a bar and violence breaks out. The police arrive and start attacking people and making arrests. Ken leaves as quickly as he can and declares that he is not one of them. Throughout the two hours Ken goes through his own evolution of acceptance. He knows he is gay but he eventually comes to terms with what that means for his life and those around him. By the end of night one, Ken has started to embrace all that comes with being a gay Black man. He even meets a new love interest that will surely be significant moving forward.

By the end of the first night we see how all of the characters are linked and will eventually come to know each other. That link actually starts at the beginning when each character comes across a copy of Life Magazine’s 1971 “Year in Review.” It has several phrases on the cover including the words Gay Liberation. This was a turning point in many ways. It was one of the first times that the movement had been associated with something positive. It was about rising up and being heard. It was about letting people know they were not alone and there were others out there just like them.

The first night ends with Cleve Jones reciting the words he wrote in a letter: “Now is the time. It’s time for us to fight back.”

Given the state that we are currently in, those words have never been more poignant. Just like life, this series will take us on a journey through oppression, grief, sadness, resistance, liberation, success, joy, triumph and love. It is American history, it is our history. So sit back and enjoy the ride.