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Dustin Lance Black: When We Rise Will Irk the Alt-Right — but It Shouldn't

ABC's epic series examines the gay liberation movement

Malcolm Venable

Dustin Lance Black, creator and executive producer of When We Rise, ABC's sprawling series about the gay liberation movement, delivered a passionate and emotional speech about the program when talking with reporters Tuesday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

"Loud and clear, I want to say this show is under attack from the alt-right," he said, his voice nearly cracking. "But this show is not a war. We are not against anyone. This shows how we are related. It's a conversation about what it's like to be a minority in this word and how important it is for us to work together for equality."

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By nature, the program, which dramatizes real stories about a diverse lot of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, runs a risk of alienating people -- particularly people who consider gay rights, feminists and black power activists as fringe radicals. With a new administration coming into Washington, D.C. that's been dismissive, if not hostile, to those groups, it's easy to assume the show will alienate people but Black is cautious against making that leap.

"There are a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show," he said. "I didn't write this for half the country. If Donald Trump actually watches the show, he might like the show."
It's not an educational propaganda tool, said Rachel Griffiths, who stars in the series as Diane, a lesbian mother and grandmother of three, who joined the Women's Movement in the 1970s in San Francisco and worked as an HIV/AIDS nurse and social justice activist for more than 30 years.

When We Rise

When We Rise

Ron Koeberer, ABC

Griffiths is one of many major stars who'll appear in the program; her character Diane, like others, arrives in San Fransisco in the late 1970s to escape discrimination they experienced elsewhere because of race, sexual orientation or sexism. Guy Pearce plays Cleve Jones, a young Quaker from Arizona, who helped lead the gay liberation movement and founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Michael K. Williams plays community organizer Ken Jones, a Vietnam veteran who joined the gay liberation movement only to discover and confront racism within the gay men's community.
The story is packed with moving, monumental historical moments (and more A-listers including Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell, David Hyde Pierce, Phylicia Rashad and Rob Reiner), but it's not a history lesson. It's a dramatized retelling of powerful stories that Black spent more than a year gathering, and feels compelled to tell to help and inspire young people.

"I pitched this show to one network for one reason," he said, adding that he grew up in a religious, military Southern conservative family. "I love them and I treasure them. I wrote this for my aunts and uncles and cousins. ... I wrote this to say, 'Hey we have more in common than you think. We speak the same language.'

"It was important to me in deciding who to depict that many, if not most [of the activists] are still alive," he said, adding that he wanted to show models who are alive and thriving. "I do hope that a new generation looks to these people for more inspiration. We need them more than ever." It's also important, he said, to show connective tissue between all people. "'We' is the most important word in that title."

When We Rise is not a culture war, he reiterated; it's about answering, "How do we make the world more livable for other people? That's how my mother raised me," he said. "My conservative Christian mother."

When We Rise airs on ABC in spring.