Laugh, cry, furious, proud


Emily Skeggs as Roma Guy in When We Rise

When I heard that ABC was going to do an eight-hour miniseries about the gay rights movement – a sort of Roots for the gays – I was shocked. Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing Milk, was shocked, too, when he found out ABC was asking for LGBT-themed pitches. But he went to the meeting and proposed When We Rise, which took ABC’s primetime schedule the week after the Oscars (the one that ended with the first gay-themed Best Picture winner). It was an incredible investment of resources to an unflinching and honest portrait of the messy, upsetting, tragic, uplifting and subversive lives of LGBT Americans.

The series isn’t as groundbreaking as Roots and not as artful and sublime as Milk, but it’s a damn fine docudrama that should make you laugh and cry, make you furious and make you proud. If you missed when it was on live, you’re in luck: It’s sitting on Hulu in perpetuity.

When We Rise starts in 1972 with young activists converging in San Francisco and ends in 2013 with them celebrating marriage equality at San Francisco City Hall: Cleve Jones, a gay teenager from middle-class Phoenix becomes Harvey Milk’s aid and the founder of the AIDS Quilt; Roma Guy, a Peace Corp veteran, starts the San Francisco Women’s Building, raises a daughter with her longtime partner nurse Diane Jones and helps usher in citywide health care; and Ken Jones, a black Navy officer and Vietnam veteran runs a homeless center, becomes an addict, and then a central figure of the progressive queer church City of Refuge. All are real people who participated in the making of the series, which is officially “suggested by” Jones’ recently published memoir.

Cleve is played by Austin P. McKenzie as a young man, then Guy Pearce. Emily Skegs and then Mary-Louise Parker are Roma, with Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths as Diane. And breakout newcomer Jonathan Majors and then Michael Kenneth Williams are Ken. (Various other historically important people are played by Ivory Aquino, TR Knight, Dylan Walsh, Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad and Rosie O’Donnell.)

Clockwise: Austin P. McKenzie as Cleve Jones, Jonathan Majors as Ken Jones, Guy Pierce as Cleve Jones and Mary Louise Parker as Roma Guy, and Whoopi Goldberg as Pat NormanWhile the resemblances between the younger and older actors are minimal at best, with Cleve’s making the most sense and Roma’s almost none, the suspension of disbelief is earned over the eight hours of extraordinary plot both historical and melodramatic. As the three young activists get involved in local queer politics, they crisscross each other and find their voices, fall in and out of love, fight the power and each other, and then confront the epic tragedy of AIDS. The four of them survive, the men do it just barely, and then they all experience various forms of catharsis.

That all of these things happened over such a short period of time is amazing, but Black shows how organically they occurred, accidents of history abutting brilliant activism and masses of love and anger. He does not shirk the truth: There is gay sex, gay bashings, deaths from AIDS and fury at the people who let us suffer and die. Black’s dramatization occasionally takes shortcuts, both historical and emotional, and a few times the action feels forced and the tears manipulated. I cried through most of the second four hours: the deaths, the marriages, the redemptions. When I posted that on Twitter, Black liked it: He wanted me to cry.

I’m not sure if everyone will cry while watching When We Rise. Those of us who lived through it will likely have profound emotional reactions: the depictions of the events are true enough to, for lack of a better term, trigger floods of memories.

If we’re lucky, however, people who didn’t know it was all happening or weren’t born early enough to participate will see When We Rise and learn something, feel something and develop the empathy, understanding and anger needed to make sure we don’t go backwards. You should watch it, and you should watch it with the people who need to see it.

When We Rise
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Directed by Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant and Dee Rees
Starring Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Kenneth Williams
On Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A lesson is how to do everything wrong

J. Edgar is a lesson is how to do everything wrong. My review is here, and here.

As 20th century American politicians go, J. Edgar Hoover is tied with Richard Nixon on the evil-o-meter. Only Joe McCarthy beats them. A megalomaniacal red-baiter who destroyed countless lives and probably made the United States no less secure for the trouble, McCarthy had no redeeming qualities. Hoover and Nixon – both craven, cynical and paranoid – were, as it happens, also rather efficient civil servants.

Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, orchestrated détente with China and continued Kennedy and Johnson’s push for civil rights. And Hoover basically invented the FBI as we know it. In his 48 years running it, Hoover transformed the bureau from an unarmed, ad hoc mini-division of the Justice Department into the enormous, hugely powerful, mostly do-good crime-fighting machine it is today.

But as Nixon had Vietnam and Watergate, Hoover spent decades stomping on civil liberties, breaking laws in petty revenge schemes and blackmailing politicians to protect his fiefdom and get his way. And he was probably gay, making him yet another queer historical figure we don’t want to claim (like Ernst Röhm, Roy Cohn, and President James Buchanan). Many people, me included, were surprised when Oliver Stone presented Tricky Dick as a complicated, misunderstood man in 1995’s Nixon; and I think there will be similar reactions to Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black’s sympathetic portrait of Hoover in J. Edgar. The main difference here is that Nixon was a pretty good movie, and aside from Leonardo DiCaprio’s stirring physical transformation into the late FBI director, J. Edgar is somewhat of a slog.

I was surprised, because Clint Eastwood is American film’s great living formalist. He is famous for his efficient direction, for not doing too many takes or tricking his actors into unexpected emotions. He doesn’t do the visual and editing tricks of Stone, Scorsese, Spielberg, Fincher or Van Sant. His calmly old-fashioned, straight-forward direction is impeccably perfect for self-contained stories likeUnforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. But when it comes to the sprawling story of Hoover – which covers more than five decades, multiple aging characters and complex political and personal machinations – Eastwood’s style is ill-fitting. I kept waiting to be surprised or moved, but instead I got a history lesson; the movie was just too staid, too pedantic and too safe.

Black’s screenplay is greatly at fault. Structurally, it takes the most clichéd approach. In the late 1960s, Hoover is dictating the story of the FBI to a series of junior agents (including, bizarrely, Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick), and the tales become undated flashbacks. The flashbacks extend into Hoover’s personal life, which we must assume he’s not telling anyone at the FBI about, because this includes his creepy relationship with his mother (Dame Judi Dench) and his less creepy, but much less clear relationship with his deputy and sidekick, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The sprawl of the story includes major subplots on the Lindbergh kidnapping, infighting with Bobby Kennedy and the loyalty of his long-time assistant, Helen Gandy, played by a criminally underutilized Naomi Watts.

But what is connecting all of this? What is the psychological, emotional or historical thread that tells us what made Hoover tick? It’s never clear. We don’t get Hearst’s Rosebud like in Citizen Kane or Harvey Milk’s deep sense of justice and optimism like in Black’s most excellent script for Milk. It’s almost as if Black didn’t want to take a stand. As to whether or not Hoover was gay, or whether the rumors of his cross-dressing were true, he manages to take the dull, middle road. Stone, for whatever his failings, always took the risk and took a stand. Even if JFK and Nixon weren’t accurate, they were entertaining.

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer
Rated R
At your local multiplex