Thursday, March 2, 2017

When We Rise, episode 2 (ABC-TV, aired March 1, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the second episode of When We Rise, ABC-TV’s interesting if not overwhelmingly compelling mini-series about the Queer civil-rights struggle in general and three pivotal people in San Francisco in particular: Cleve Jones (played “young” by Austin P. MacKenzie and “older” by Guy Pearce — who doesn’t look very much like him), Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors “young” and Michael Kenneth Williams older), and Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs “young,” Mary-Louise Parker older). The first half of episode 2 dealt with Harvey Milk’s campaigns for office in San Francisco — he failed to win election to the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s equivalent of a city council) twice and lost a Democratic primary for State Assembly before finally winning a Board of Supervisors seat in 1977 — along with the campaign against Proposition 6, the initiative sponsored by State Senator John Briggs that would have fired teachers from public schools not only for being Gay but for supporting Gay rights whatever their own sexual orientation. There’s a chilling clip from the actual debate during which Briggs and one of his supporters faced off against Milk and Lesbian activist Sally Gearhart — and Briggs, like most people who are forced to defend the prejudicial attitudes they regard as simple common sense, tied himself into rhetorical knots and just made himself sound ridiculous.

The script by Dustin Lance Black — directed this time not by Gus Van Sant but by someone I’d never heard of named Dee Rees — predictably made much of the irony that just three weeks after the Briggs initiative went down to overwhelming defeat (due at least partly to an endorsement against it by Ronald Reagan, an inconvenient fact carefully left out of Black’s script, which portrays Reagan exclusively as a villain for not responding more quickly to the AIDS crisis), Milk and San Francisco’s progressive mayor, George Moscone, were shot and killed by fellow Supervisor Dan White. (At least part of the aftermath of this was that San Francisco voters repealed the district elections system under which Milk, after three defeats, had finally been able to win; not until more than two decades later would San Francisco return to district elections.) What’s more, when White was tried he was only convicted of manslaughter, not murder — which triggered riots in the streets after the police (an action showed in the film, though so ambiguously that unless you lived the history you probably weren’t aware of what was supposed to be going on) cleared away the cordon of nonviolent Queer protesters that had surrounded the San Francisco City Hall to block the vandals who wanted to trash it. What both the outraged Queers at the time and later historians have ignored was that the reason White wasn’t convicted of murder was that the case was either deliberately or incompetently “thrown” by the San Francisco district attorney’s office, which wanted at all costs to preserve their good relations with the San Francisco Police Department — whose members had made it clear that they regarded White as someone who’d been driven to the breaking point and whose actions, though regrettable, were at least understandable. (The D.A. was voted out of office in the next election and the fiasco of the White case was one of the biggest reasons he lost.)

The second half of the show dealt with AIDS, and particularly the heady early days of the epidemic (a word that’s been casually thrown around in connection with AIDS; strictly speaking, the epidemic phase of AIDS lasted from 1981 to 1992 and then the syndrome became endemic, localized in specific populations and only trickling out past the so-called “risk groups” instead of erupting into the “general population” as was originally feared), when Gay men suddenly started becoming deathly ill from diseases like Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia previously associated only with people whose immune systems were compromised by age or cancer. My own personal history started intersecting with the show at this point; I was living in San Francisco (ironically, with a girlfriend before I definitively came out) in 1978 and experienced the tumultuous events of the Moscone/Milk slayings (and the immediately preceding tragedy of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and their mass suicide/executions at Jonestown — which here, as in his Milk biopic, carefully left out of his script; I vividly remember the sensation we had at the time that the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk were just yet one more manifestation of a time that was seriously out of joint, just as the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. had created a sense of tumult, of living through an era in which history had lost its moorings and literally anything bad could happen) and the subsequent riots — indeed, my then-girlfriend and I had a bird’s-eye view of the rioting from our studio apartment on Larkin Street in San Francisco, just up the street from City Hall (though by the time the riot got to us it was basically just thugs and teenage punks looking for an excuse to trash things; my most vivid memory was of the smell of burning rubber as the rioters, looking for things they could burn, looted a tire store across the street from our apartment and set the tires on fire).

When We Rise is a frustrating film because it does quite a few things right; for one thing, it strikingly dramatizes the levels of prejudice not only from the oppressors but the fellow oppressed. Ken Jones’ struggles with homophobia in the Black community and racism in the Queer community are strongly and skillfully dramatized; at a meeting with a Black organization to try to get them to fund a needle exchange program he’s solemnly informed by a middle-aged guy on the panel that “no real Black man is homosexual” (the character isn’t identified as a minister but I’m sure his real-life equivalent was; for all its commitment to social justice not only for its own community but quite a few others as well, the Black churches have generally been just as strongly anti-Queer as the white ones — indeed, the church my husband Charles goes to, Unity Fellowship, was founded by Black Queers tired of dealing with the homophobia of the mainstream Black churches, just as the Metropolitan Community Church was founded by white Queers tired of dealing with the homophobia of white churches), while when he goes to a Gay bar he’s asked for multiple forms of ID and generally hassled and sent the message that he’s unwelcome. The film is also honest about the struggle between young Queer activists and Gay bar owners, who were generally politically and socially conservative and unwilling to allow their bars to be used as fundraisers either for Queer candidates or for AIDS when the epidemic broke — and Black’s script is honest about how in the minds of many Queer and non-Queer Americans alike AIDS and its association with Gay men in general and Gay sex in particular seemed to validate and support the homophobic critique. I vividly remember Pat Buchanan’s infamous column in 1983 that said “the homosexuals have waged war against nature, and Nature is taking a terrible revenge on them” (I’m quoting from memory so that might not be word-for-word accurate, but that was the gist of it). The timing of my coming-out experience may account for the fact that I was able to deal with AIDS from a distance — I didn’t have the life history of seeing many of my friends die from a strange, mysterious illness that seemed to come out of nowhere — and I suspect that’s why I was skeptical from the get-go towards the mainstream idea that AIDS was a single disease with a single cause. The fact that the manifestations of AIDS varied so wildly from person to person — some living with it for years, some dying within weeks — and the sheer multiplicity of symptoms argued for a multifactorial cause, and to this day I remain convinced that the mainstream theory that it’s all a single virus known as HIV is pseudo-scientific nonsense and what really caused AIDS were the lifestyle choices of certain (not all!) Gay men in the 1970’s, including heavy use of both recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, a high degree of sexual experimentation that resulted in Gay men getting classic STD’s and taking antibiotics for them with long-term damage to their immune systems. It seems profoundly ironic to me that a community worried that a disease associated with Gay men would make being Gay itself look bad so eagerly and uncritically embraced the medical mainstream’s definition of AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease for which all sexually active Gay men were at risk.

Within the confines of the mainstream view (and part two actually ends before the infamous April 1984 press conference at which Ronald Reagan’s Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, who’d previously run an openly homophobic campaign for Congress in Massachusetts against Barney Frank, and Dr. Robert Gallo politically proclaimed what is now known as HIV to be “the probable cause of AIDS” and thereby brought all research into alternative theories to a screeching halt), Black treats AIDS surprisingly well, focusing on the community-wide trauma; the exclusion of people from their lovers’ deathbeds by hospital officials who only allowed “family members” (“He doesn’t talk to his family,” says one Gay man protesting his exclusion from his dying partner’s bedside); the reluctant acceptance among Lesbians that AIDS was their fight, too; and the disinclination of most straight politicians to respond to the crisis with major funding and support. Like episode one, episode two of When We Rise is perched unevenly between “official history” and moving drama — Dustin Lance Black knows how to create characters we empathize with, and this would be an even stronger film if he’d trusted more in his ability to do that and if he’d lost the voice-over narrations by which the three principals periodically explain retrospectively what we’re seeing and what its significance is. It also has some of the usual production glitches — notably the horrible wigs Whoopi Goldberg wears in her role as San Francisco health official Pat Norman, one of the organizers of the San Francisco Women’s Center and also one of the first people to take AIDS seriously. But overall When We Rise is a welcome slice of Queer history and an astonishing thing to see on a major commercial TV network in the U.S. — not that we’re likely to see more of it as the entertainment industry realizes how out of touch they are with the values of the America that elected Donald Trump President and how Trump’s election has thrown the arc of history away from bending towards justice (Martin Luther King’s famous line was quoted in episode one), and instead has sent it crashing into reverse, headlong into an exaltation of bigotry, prejudice and white straight male supremacy!