Why ABC's 'When We Rise' Fell Short

Updated on March 16, 2017
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Luke Schulte is a featured contributor to local San Antonio print and television media. He is an actor, activist, and equality advocate.

Courtesy: ABC
Courtesy: ABC | Source

"When We Rise chronicles the real-life personal and political struggles, set-backs and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women, who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. Civil Rights movement from its turbulent infancy in the 20th century to the once unfathomable successes of today."

— ABC, 2017


3 stars for When We Rise (ABC, 2017)

On February 27, 2017, ABC premiered a four night docu-series about the origins of the fight for LGBT equality in America called ‘When We Rise.’ The series chronicled, among other things, the story of real-life activist Cleve Jones (played by Guy Pearce), and retold the stories of police brutality, the assassination of Harvey Milk, the Gay March on Washington, the AIDS epidemic, and the Supreme Court case which challenged anti-LGBT legislation in California.

Despite a creative team of award winners and critically acclaimed producers and directors (Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Zant, Dee Rees and Tommy Schlamme), as well as a cast of Hollywood heavy hitters (Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell and many more), the series was met with only lukewarm response and its ratings were terrible.

What could have been a giant step forward in the pro-LGBTQIA+ cause, our chance to tell our story to a straight and cisgender audience of millions ended up being only mildly entertaining television with no public draw. The premiere couldn’t even outperform ‘Superior Donuts’ on FOX, which had over two times the ratings.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but here are the five things I wish the series would have done differently.

1) Publicity

I watch a lot of television…a lot. As an actor, I love pilot season and I try to give all new series a chance. I had no idea ‘When We Rise’ was premiering until the day before it did. I wish there had been a stronger publicity campaign: commercials, Facebook ads, Twitter posts—something. Honestly, I don’t even remember how I found out about the series.

How far in advance did you hear about 'When We Rise'?

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2) Opposition

I think the show missed an opportunity to present stronger arguments from anti-LGBT officials. While I personally don’t think there are any logical arguments against equality, including this point of view could have helped sway public opinion toward pro-LGBT legislation.

The anti-equality characters (many if not all of whom were or are real-life public officials) were painted as antagonists and their arguments were left one-sided and not fully fleshed out.

3) Casting Decisions

The principle storyteller in ‘When We Rise’ is Cleve Jones, played by Guy Pearce. Pearce is a well-respected actor, known for his portrayal of gay characters, but Pearce is a straight, married man, and while I think he played the part brilliantly, I can’t help but wonder why the real Cleve Jones (who is still alive) wasn’t featured more prominently and why there weren’t more gay, lesbian and trans actors in “meatier” roles.

One of the recurring storylines in ‘When We Rise’ follows Navy serviceman Ken Jones (no relation to Cleve Jones, though the two men’s lives do cross paths). Jones and his lover serve aboard the same ship until an accident while on duty claims Jones’ lover’s life. Jones eventually finds love again in San Francisco, in the arms of a married man who is out to his wife, but who plays straight publicly during tumultuous times for out gay men. By the end of the series, Jones and his new lover have each contracted HIV.

In the beginning of the series, Jones is played by Jonathan Majors, a robust, virile young man who sounds a lot like Denzel Washington. However, while I can understand the casting decision to replace him “later in life” with a thinner, more frail looking actor, Michael K. Williams, Williams looks and sounds nothing like Majors. The stark differences between the two men and how they each chose to portray the same character made it difficult to stay with the story.


Guy Pearce
Cleve Jones
Austin P. McKenzie
Young Cleve Jones
Mary-Louise Parker
Roma Guy
Emily Skeggs
Young Roma Guy
Rachel Griffiths
Fiona Dourif
Young Diane
Michael K. Williams
Ken Jones
Jonathan Majors
Young Ken Jones

Ken Jones

Majors (left), Williams (center) & and the real Ken Jones (right).
Majors (left), Williams (center) & and the real Ken Jones (right). | Source

4) Air Dates

I think it was a mistake to air the series in four consecutive nights. I wonder if it would have made a ratings difference had the creative team approached ‘When We Rise’ similarly to ‘American Crime,’ and made the project an eight-part weekly series.

5) Present-Day Struggles

While ‘When We Rise’ mentioned Prop 8 in California and the US Supreme Court decision which eventually struck the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) down in 2013, it failed to include the Obergefell decision in 2015 which nationalized marriage equality or any of the present day battles against LGBT discrimination.

For many, and specifically for trans people, the fight is not over. In many states, there are still no workplace or public protections for LGBT persons. Texas has launched a challenge to the Obergefell decision, aiming to strip same-sex married couples of employment and tax benefits. The current President of the United States has stripped trans students of the Title IX protections previously afforded to them by the Obama administration. Many states seek to pass anti-trans legislation, forcing them to use the public facilities of their unrecognized biological gender.

The series ended on a win, but made no mention of the present-day struggles LGBTQIA+ men and women still face every day in this country.

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