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In The Mix
February 10, 2017

Freedoms Found

In an ABC mini, a distinguished writer-director documents the long road to civil rights for the LGBT community and other embattled groups.

Paula Chin
  • Phil Bray/ABC
  • Phil Bray/ABC
  • Phil Bray/ABC

Dustin Lance Black has always been a man on a mission.

As a writer-director, he was telling stories about the gay community long before he won an Oscar in 2009 for his screenplay for Milk, the biopic of the slain San Francisco politician and gay-rights icon Harvey Milk, and gave an eloquent acceptance speech, wearing a white knot on his lapel to show his support for same-sex marriage.

With ABC’s When We Rise — an eight-hour miniseries premiering February 27 — he has written another moving script, and once again it’s a labor of love.

“I’ve been working on this for almost four years,” says Black, the show’s creator and an executive producer. “It’s about the history of the LGBT movement in San Francisco over the last four decades, but I also wanted to tell the stories of the people who played important roles in the fight for women’s and civil rights and the peace movement. It’s not just about gays — that’s why it’s called When We Rise.”

The series follows Roma Guy, a women’s rights activist; Ken Jones, a veteran working for African-American rights; Cleve Jones, an LGBT activist; and a nurse known as Diane who assisted HIV-AIDS patients.

While casting those roles was a challenge, “we were very, very lucky,” he says. Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths were the first to sign on, as Roma and Diane, respectively. “Rachel asked if we had considered Guy Pearce to play Cleve Jones — we had reached out to him but hadn’t heard back. Thanks to Rachel, we did.”

Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Kenneth Williams joined the cast as Ken Jones after reading the script, which held a special resonance for him, having lost many friends in New York City during the AIDS crisis.

Also on Black’s checklist was Gus Van Sant, the Oscar-nominated director of Milk who ended up directing the series’ two-hour premiere.

“He’s such a wonderful collaborator, and we’re even more brave together than apart,” says Black, who cast a wide net for directors as well as writers — gay and straight, men and women, black and white. (Along with Van Sant and Black, the executive producers of When We Rise include Laurence Mark and Bruce Cohen.)

“There’s a lot of talk about the need for more diversity in Hollywood,” Black notes, “but I didn’t bring these people in to be PC. I wanted authenticity.”

The series was shot mostly in Vancouver, but Black persuaded ABC execs to okay a week of filming in San Francisco, where he’d lived in the early ‘90s when AIDS was devastating the gay community.

“I was a teenager apprenticing in the theater, and I saw my mentors and teachers, directors and choreographers getting thin and then just vanishing, one after the other,” he recalls. “Only afterwards was I told that they had died.”

When We Rise concludes with the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision requiring states to license and recognize same-sex marriage, but Black emphasizes the need to keep moving forward.

“I would give anything in the world for the series to be less topical than it is now. At its core, the show is about the families we’re born into and those we build out of necessity. We have to introduce everyone to each other — whether we pray to a different God or come from different communities — and work together. That’s how you change hearts and minds.”

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