We the People

Dustin Lance Black on the historic airing of the epic miniseries When We Rise and why the most important part of any struggle for social justice is “We.”

©2017 ABC
Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths in When We Rise.
March 17, 2017 Written by Matt Hoey
ABC/Image Group LA Dustin Lance Black

When We Rise is a roadmap...It says loud and clear, ‘We’ve been in this position before, we have faced backlash, we had to learn how to come together in order to get stronger, and to push that pendulum of progress forward again.’

Earlier this month, for the first time since the groundbreaking Roots in 1977, a broadcast network aired a miniseries in one week, over the course of consecutive nights. When We Rise, the epic docudrama from ABC, is told over eight hours and four segments and explores the intersection of the personal and the political in the ongoing, decades-long struggle for LGBT equality.

For Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk and J. Edgar and creator and guiding force behind the miniseries, the airing of When We Rise is, in itself, momentous. “I know we’ve grown to where we’re more comfortable with LGBT people and this country has begun to accept that we are equal,” says Black, “but it would be a mistake not to recognize the radical nature of this show on network television within the lifetime of so many who never could have imagined it.” Now streaming on ABC.com, iTunes, and Hulu, Black is optimistic the saga will continue to reach even more, younger viewers.

Starting in San Francisco in the early 1970s, moving through the death of Harvey Milk, the Names Project AIDS Quilt, and the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision regarding marriage equality, and beyond, the saga follows the real-life experiences of equal rights activists such as Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Diane Jones, Ken Jones, and Cecilia Chung.

Along with an all-star cast that includes Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, and Michael Kenneth Williams, Black brought in a diverse group of writers and directors to share their own perspectives. Writers Dianne Houston, Eileen Myers, Lisa Zwerling, Allison Abner, Peter Parnell, and Derek Simonds and directors Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, and Thomas Schlamme all contributed to the project.

Black spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the creation of this historic piece of popular art, the true-life inspirations behind it, and the role he hopes it will play in the lives of young LGBT people (and future activists) moving forward.

How did When We Rise come about?

I heard a rumor from a writer friend of mine. She had heard ABC was going to option some LGBT history properties, books, documentaries. That was surprising. It’s one thing to have LGBT characters depicted as supporting characters or funny characters or part of an ensemble. It’s a very different moment in network television when executives start pursuing minority histories about underrepresented groups. That’s a sea change. That means the networks are ready to take our lives seriously.

So I went in and met with Paul Lee, the president of the network at the time, and Channing Dungey, who is now the president of the network. I just asked very directly if they were serious about doing something about the LGBT movement and our history and our history of activism that led us to the moment we were in at the time, which was the fight heading to the Supreme Court around marriage equality. They told me why this was meaningful and personal to them and why they thought it was about time networks started to embrace stories of LGBT people and our history and activism and struggle. I felt confident to say, “What if I write it and produce it?” I told them what that process was going to look like. That included a great deal of research to find the personal stories that would take us through this political journey. When I said that might take as much as a year, they didn’t bat an eyelash, and I knew they were serious. They didn’t have a specific idea of whose stories to tell or how you would tell this story, they just knew they were looking for something, and it was up to me to figure it out.

So, you then spent a year on research?

I put everything aside for four years on this project. The first year was a lot of phone calls to different leaders and activists who were still around. Then it was traveling around the country, meeting with different people who had been a part of the movement, different activists. But I had a checklist of what I wanted from the main characters depicted, and it was a great challenge, a tough challenge, to find the people I would eventually depict.

My philosophy was no social justice movement is secure or strong or can advance on its own. It has to find strength in its connection to other social justice movements. You see that clearly in history. None of us can succeed on our own. We’re minorities, and that’s how it works. It was important these characters come from other social justice movements. That they began their work for the black civil rights movement or the peace movement or the women’s movement. That narrowed it down. I wanted to find people who had been lifelong activists. That really narrowed it down because it’s very, very difficult work, it doesn’t really pay, and you’re often being eaten by your own, so the lifespan of an activist is usually just a handful of years, not a lifetime. That narrowed it down further. I wanted to tell a new narrative about working in social justice and that is that you didn’t have to die at the end. That’s what so many of our civil rights films tell us, if you dedicate your life to working with others, you have to be assassinated or killed in the end. I didn’t want to do that again. The third requirement was that most of these folks needed to still be alive. Partly because of a plague and partly because of how long the journey has taken, that narrowed it down even further. After a year I was luckily left with this handful of people who had come to San Francisco in the early ‘70s, knew each other and had worked together. I felt confident I could break a narrative around their stories.

It was a difficult research period because there were so many fantastic stories that I heard and people I met and got to know along the way, but if they didn’t check those boxes that would help tell the overarching story, and if they didn’t naturally interact and form a family with the other people depicted, I couldn’t use it. Now their stories will have to be part of another narrative, in the future.

Was there overlap with any research you had done on Milk?

I had learned a good bit of what you see in the early hours doing Milk. Some of it even flows from the frustration of Milk. I was focusing that story on one person and I hungered for something more inclusive, more representative of the LGBT movement, which was very diverse, and perhaps even tell the story of how and why we got past all the divisiveness within our own community, how men and women came together, started working together, to move past racism, sexism, in our own community. How we started to find our own power, our own strength, by building a coalition of the us’s, that even went beyond LGBT people. I wanted to tell a larger story of our movement. It’s not the story. It’s a story, because there are many. Milk was a movie. You can’t do it all in one movie. You can’t do it all in one miniseries. But I wanted to go further and deeper than 1978. I wanted to start earlier and go much further.

I was working my tail off for a year. And I probably only used about five percent of that in the series.

Watching the show, you get the sense that we could follow any of these characters. There could be a whole hour—or more—about Tom Ammiano or Cecilia Chung.

I would have loved to have more hours. I begged for more hours. This could have been a season-long mega-miniseries. It is a history that has never been told in this kind of a popularized fashion, and it only scratches the surface. We have so many more stories to be told and what I was left with was these eight hours. At one point, ABC, for a period of one day, thought, “We can do it in six.” And I put my foot down and said, “It’s already impossible. Don’t do that to us.” We did the very best we could to tell enough of this untold history that, I hope, this country and certainly young LGBT people will start to learn they have forefathers and foremothers that have been fighting for generations to help make their lives a little better. I hope the rest of America understands that LGBT activism, the fight for LGBT civil rights, is tied to the fight for racial equality and women’s equality and to so many other people of diversity who have been fighting for so long, that we are interrelated, that we are interconnected. Most of these characters deserve more. I hope this creates curiosity, I hope it challenges other writers and filmmakers to dig deeper into who these people are, and the people who weren’t depicted. I hope this, finally, as a document that ABC has helped create starts to solidify our place in civil rights history. Our history goes beyond just the history of HIV/AIDS, which is so far what’s been told.

Do you see more projects potentially coming out of this?

There are certainly more stories about our history and people who dedicated their lives to our movement, whose stories I’d like to tell. I’m working on a Bayard Rustin film right now at HBO [the gay African-American civil rights activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington]. LGBT history has been buried in shame for hundreds of years. We’ve always existed, but if we stood up and told our history the way this show does, just a few generations ago, we would’ve been labeled mentally ill and thrown in jail. Potentially subjected to electroshock therapy or lobotomized. And I know we’ve grown to where we’re more comfortable with LGBT people and this country has begun to accept that we are equal, but it would be a mistake not to recognize the radical nature of this show on network television within the lifetime of so many who never could have imagined it. We have a lot more to tell, because so much has been buried in fear and shame and that’s most unfortunate because history is power. History is our strength. History erases the isolation and fear of being a minority or a person of diversity. Until recently, LGBT people have not had that. We have tried to survive, and often failed to survive, in isolation. And fear. And that doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

Did having living subjects complicate the writing process?

Well, it’s a great benefit. But it is also a great responsibility. At a certain point, Cleve Jones moved into my house and started writing a memoir, also called When We Rise. I would be writing scripts in my office while he would be writing in the living room, and it was great to be able to walk out and ask him questions, hear his stories, and go back into my office and write. They were not quite as close, but I could pick up the phone and talk with Roma Guy and Diane Jones and Ken Jones, and continue to dig deeper. That was important to me because I felt like this history needed to be as unassailable as possible. We were going to have to fictionalize—this covers 45 years in eight hours, with commercials—there would need to be condensed timelines and some combining of characters, but I wanted what was there to be very, very truthful. In order to do that I needed to ask a lot of questions and also interview these folks in groups so they could help each other get their memories closer to the truth.

Then there’s the responsibility. I wanted these people to be there when I was writing. I wanted them there in pre-production to work with actors, the designers, and the directors. I wanted them to see the show in post. I wanted them to do their best to keep us honest. At the same time, I did not allow them to change anything that made them uncomfortable. It takes frank and sometimes tough conversations with the real folks because we needed to be authentic. I do not want this to be dismissible, by the far right, who seem to like to rob minorities of power by denying their history. I did not want this to be easily dismissible.

How did you figure out the structure and timing of the entire series?

A lot of that happens when I’m outlining. That’s when I write down bits of the story onto notecards and start to break the story. It was certainly more of a challenge early on in the series, before these characters come together, because they’re all running on separate tracks, and you don’t want it to feel like three separate stories. These stories need to communicate with each other, even if the characters aren’t yet working together. So I have color-coded cards, each character has a color, each strand has a color, and I just start pushing them around. For the middle episodes, where I had writers come in and help, we did that together.

I knew the stories would collide and complement each other as these characters got to know each other and began working together. Because of the research I knew where the intersections were and those were signposts. I knew where I was headed.

How did you find your co-writers? How did that process go?

Well, I needed help. I am a gay white guy from Texas, raised in the Mormon Church. That’s my experience. If I’m going to do a show that’s attempting to be as diverse as the movement, I had better not be an arrogant gay white guy and think I know everything about every other experience in our very diverse LGBTQIA movement—with more letters by the day. That meant looking for great writers, number one, who had experienced their own trials and tribulations within the LGBT movement and in the straight world looking in on what we’ve been doing. And so I looked for diverse writers. Men and women, black and white, gay and straight. Same with the directors. And in doing so I asked them to bring themselves to the writers’ room, to bring their experiences, and to teach me what they knew and what they perceived. When people bring themselves to it, that’s when the scripts feel the most personal. That was incredibly important because we are moving through a great deal of history. In order for it to be engaging, it has to be personal and in order for a script to be personal that means a writer has to bring themselves to it.

Now that the miniseries has aired, has it connected the way you had hoped?

I’ve never had a project received so well in my life or career by the people who actually watched it. The response has been emotional and passionate, certainly overwhelming. I can’t go on Twitter without tearing up over some of the stories that people are telling me about their experience watching When We Rise, how it’s helped them or their son or daughter. I’m most pleased with our team, because it’s all kinds of people with diversity, within our movement and beyond, who are connecting with the show. And that was a goal, to try and depict our movement in all its diversity, to be inclusive, to reach our arms out to other people of diversity and say, “Hey, we’re in this together.”

The two criticisms I hear are good. One is it’s so dense, there’s so much history in it, and the other is there’s not enough history and we need more characters depicted and more of our history told. So that feels to me like we got it as right as possible in the eight hours I was given. Those who say there’s too much history, I say, “Talk to an LGBT person who just saw it and you’re going to see tears in their eyes, because we’ve been robbed of our history. And to you it might sound like politics and policy, but to us, it’s validation that our lives and our loves matter.”

There have been those criticisms around the edge. Most are coming from the far right, the extreme right, extreme conservatives who try to say it’s not true, it’s false, it never happened. And it’s an insidious lie. If you rob a people of their history, you rob them of their power and that’s what they’re attempting to do. It’s been very heartening to see all the historians and LGBT historians writing such rave reviews of how this show has handled our history. Now we just need to get more eyes on it, to let people know the power they can draw from watching this series. It’s a very helpful series for people to watch and absorb in these divided times.

In the four years since you started, could you have imagined it being released at such a fraught time? It feels much more urgent and important now.

It definitely changes how it will be used as a tool. Four years ago I was in the middle of the marriage equality fight. We were experiencing success. For the first time we were winning, and I started to worry that we were winning without our coalitions. I’m a student of Harvey Milk who built a coalition of seniors, workers, and racial minorities, and LGBT people, in order to start winning at the ballot box. He knew we couldn’t do it on our own. Simple math. No minority can. And after winning marriage equality, and I think drunk on that success, we forgot to stand up for our brothers and sisters in what had been our coalitions. And I thought, “Boy, if we’re divided like that, we will fall.”

This [show] was built and designed as a warning, saying, “Let’s remember we need to be fighting for our brothers and sisters in the black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, for immigrants, people without health care, all the potential us’s out there.” If we’re going to keep these new gains we’ve made, we have to have a coalition. And that fear was realized, in this last election. We were divided, and we were defeated. Now, When We Rise is a roadmap instead of a warning. It says loud and clear, “We’ve been in this position before, we have faced backlash, we had to learn how to come together in order to get stronger, and to push that pendulum of progress forward again.”

That’s the truth about activism. It’s messy. It’s hard. We only succeed a small percentage of the time, but that work is worthwhile. That work aggregates over a lifetime and the results of that work in the real moments of success is life-changing, law-changing, life-saving. There is no one right way. When we argue which way is the right way, we’re wasting our time. My personal stamp on which way to go in this movement is to focus on the middle word in the title: “We.” My opinion is that the “We” is the most important part of this struggle or any social justice struggle. We lost sight of that a bit and I hope people find their place in that “We,” whether they are LGBT or straight.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: Pulitzer-nommed playwright, screenwriter, and veteran showrunner Jon Robin Baitz responds to critics of his LGBT historical drama Stonewall and explains why he’s always identified with those who’ve felt different from those around them.