Friday, March 3, 2017

When We Rise, episode 3 (Hungry Jackal Productions, Laurence Mark Productions, ABC-TV, aired March 2, 2017)

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

Episode three of When We Rise, ABC-TV’s compelling but uneven miniseries on the rise of Queer America in general and three Queer Americans in particular — Cleve Jones, Ed Jones and Roma Guy, all more or less active in Queer politics and activism in San Francisco in the late 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s (and all of them still alive and shown in an hour-long preliminary documentary shown in advance of last night’s episode) — as seen through the lens of the history of the movement first in San Francisco and then in Washington, D.C. as Cleve Jones organizes the NAMES Project, a.k.a. the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and unveils it for its first mass showing as part of the 1987 March on Washington — which I attended and saw it there. I remember one commentator making an intriguing comparison between the Viet Nam War Memorial, with its names presented in neat rows and columns, all in the same type face, all chiseled into the same dark stone; and the AIDS quilt, with its colorful panels, all different from each other, that tried to express not only the names of the people lost to AIDS but a statement about who they were and what they cared about. The writer was arguing that that was the difference between a regimented operation like the U.S. military which aims to blur the distinctions between people (in the military, everyone at the same rank is basically equal, or is supposed to be) and the Queer community, which celebrates diversity and individuality. The beginning of episode three, with a different director from the first two ( lists Dee Rees but the credit went to someone named Thomas Schlamme — indeed I think has episodes two and three confused because the synopsis on their site for episode three is actually for episode two[1]), leaps forward a decade from the early 1980’s to 1992 and therefore bypasses the height of the AIDS epidemic (though AIDS “prevention” educators and lobbyists still throw around the word “epidemic,” in strict terms the AIDS epidemic ended in 1992 and AIDS has since become endemic, hovering around the Gay male community and the other original “risk groups” and only trickling, not flooding, out beyond them; indeed, the fact that AIDS has remained so resolutely concentrated among homosexually active men and hasn’t “broken out” into the general population[2] is one of the best pieces of evidence that it is not an infectious disease) and gets into the period during which the AIDS establishment was backing away from their initial advocacy of high-dose AZT as the front-line treatment and searching for multi-drug combinations that depending on which sets of statistics and projections you accept, either prolong the lives of people testing “HIV positive” or at least don’t kill them as fast.

At one point Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce) concedes that if he’d gone with his doctors’ original recommendation and gone on high-dose AZT in the late 1980’s he’d be dead — the initial high doses reflect the origins of the “HIV/AIDS” model in cancer research and in particular the attempt to find a virus that causes cancer (which reached a dead end because there isn’t one); the virus-cancer researchers became virus-AIDS researchers and dosed AZT the way they would chemo: prescribing the largest dose they could get away with without immediately or quickly killing the patient. The AIDS establishment, especially after the announcement of protease inhibitors at the 1996 Vancouver AIDS conference (a development oddly unmentioned in this film), basically declared victory and got out; today the mainstream AIDS world is oddly split between a “prevention wing” that is still trying to scare people about the lethal consequences of “unprotected” sex (and increasingly is pushing something called “PrEP,” meaning “pre-exposure prophylaxis” — i.e., getting HIV negative people to take anti-HIV medications, one of the truly sickest ideas this group of deranged people have ever come up with) and a “treatment wing” that is trying to assure the HIV-diagnosed that they can lead relatively normal lives as long as they take ever-changing regimens of insanely expensive drugs for the rest of their lives. Anyway, the plot of When We Rise has Cleve Jones mounting a “deathbed recovery” once he goes on a three-drug combination of AZT, ddI and 3TC (all nucleoside analogues, which means they kill all cells in the process of reproduction — reflecting once again the origins of AIDS “science” in cancer research; the theory was that a drug that killed all cells in the process of reproduction would be effective against cancer because what makes a cancer cell bad is it reproduces thousands of times faster than a normal cell — but these drugs were too lethal to be used as chemo, so they were given to HIV patients instead).

Ken Jones (Michael Kenneth Williams) spirals downhill into drugs and alcohol following the death of his partner Richard (who’s depicted as living with a wife, though it’s unclear from screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s script whether he’s supposed to be Bisexual or merely a Gay man married to a woman for “cover”) and the loss of their home — after Richard’s death his relatives come slamming in, throw him out, keep all his possessions and threaten to have him arrested if he sets foot in the place again — and Ken meets another Bi guy (at least he’s married and has two kids, though he has sex with men but without any emotional investment in it) in a support group until he, too, “disappears.” Meanwhile, the Lesbian couple Roma (Mary-Louise Parker) and Diane (Rachel Griffiths), whose name is actually pronounced “Dionne,” are having trouble with the child Diane conceived through artificial insemination from an anonymous Gay male sperm donor in part 2: she’s grown up to be a teenager and is rebelling not only for the usual adolescent reasons but because she’s constantly being teased and bullied because she has two moms and no dad. Diane and Roma put her into a “tough-love” Catholic private school and then say they’ll let her out again if she can keep up at least a B average in her grades — which she does. The daughter, Annie (Phoebe Neinhardt), also demands to meet her biological father — who turns out to be Tom Ammiano (Todd Weeks), Gay stand-up comedian turned politician who’s running for Mayor of San Francisco, and shortly after Annie learns who her father is, Tom and his partner show up for Parents’ Day at the Catholic school along with Diane and Roma — so now Annie has two moms and two dads. There’s also a plot line about Bill Clinton’s election as President in 1992 and his being the first President willing to visit the AIDS quilt when it’s displayed in Washington, D.C. — and the antagonism between Cleve Jones and Richard Socarides (Charles Socarides), Clinton’s point person on Queer issues and the Gay son of the notorious homophobic pseudo-scientist Charles Socarides, who preached that homosexuality was a mental illness caused by a domineering mother and an absent father (thank you, Sigmund Freud, for that piece of destructive bullshit!) and it could be “cured.”

Clinton signs the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law on Queers in the Military and the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” defining marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman (though the latter didn’t happen until 1996, a few years later than it’s depicted in this show), but he also agrees to speak at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner — though the part of his speech in which he would apologize for “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act isn’t delivered because, as another Clinton aide tells Socarides, “Presidents don’t apologize.” (The show included footage of Bill and Hillary Clinton — the real ones, though there are scenes in which Bill is played by actor Don Frankel — walking through the AIDS quilt, and I felt a tinge of sadness that Hillary isn’t our President right now: the first time I’ve looked on her as anything more than just a lesser-evil alternative to Trump.) At the end of episode three (or part six, or whatever it is) the film jumps forward again to 2006, making it clear what the content of today’s fourth and final episode will be: the emergence of marriage equality for same-sex couples as the defining issue of the Queer movement in the early 21st century and our ultimate victory before the U.S. Supreme Court (unless and until Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy depart the court and Trump can appoint two more justices to replace them and reverse the decision). Ironically, despite the attempt of Dustin Lance Black, who’s an executive producer on this show as well as its writer, to present a panoply of Queer political history, the show is at its best and most moving when it focuses on the human dramas of the characters’ private lives: Cleve Jones’ odd fling at parenthood (he takes over the raising of a child named Courtney when his neighbor, Courtney’s biological father, abandons the kid to feed his crack habit; then he applies to be Courtney’s foster parent, only to lose the child when one of the social workers at his home spots a prescription bottle for an anti-HIV medication and instantly takes the kid into custody as a ward of the state); Ed Jones’ descent into drug use and his near death from it (Black’s script is actually honest about the extent of alcohol and drug abuse in the Queer community but can’t or won’t make the obvious connection between what Gay men were — and still are — doing to trash their bodies and their immune deficiencies: that would, to use an Orwellian term, be “crimethink” against the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy); and Diane’s and Roma’s struggle with a rebellious teenage kid.

In this respect the last hour of episode three was the best part of the show so far, even though it was the least “political” — as I’ve pointed out about the earlier episodes, Black seemed torn between writing an “official” history and a personal drama, and the show does a yin-and-yang alternation between the two that makes it sometimes compelling and sometimes frustrating. At least Black doesn’t shy away from the extent of sexual experimentation among Gay men in the 1970’s (as he did in his sanitized script for the Harvey Milk biopic, which attempted to revise the sexually adventurous Milk into a “safe,” mostly monogamous hero for the marriage-equality era: that cornball scene at the end of Milk in which Milk writes a letter to his ex-partner Scott Smith offering to reconcile just before he’s killed rubbed me the wrong way, not only because it didn’t happen but because it wouldn’t have: by his last year Milk had long since given up the idea of committing to just one partner); at least two scenes take place in Gay bathhouses, and in the second one a patron is thrown out when the management spots KS lesions on his body. (One thing I like about When We Rise is that it acknowledges prejudices and hatreds within the Queer community.) When We Rise is a problematic project because you want to like it better than you do, to excuse its flaws and hail it for the things it does get right, simply because you never know whether something like it will ever get made again — which is why so many critics and Queer filmgoers went gaga over Brokeback Mountain even though it was at base an old-fashioned moral melodrama that preached that the wages of homosexuality are death or emotional devastation. Any time a Queer-themed project comes out of mainstream Hollywood there’s a sense within our community that “this better be good, because it’s the only one there’s going to be for quite a while” — so we tend to indulge efforts like When We Rise, hail their good qualities and ignore or excuse their bad ones.

[1] — Actually, the confusion stems from the fact that while ABC is showing the program in four two-hour segments, is listing the show as if it were in eight one-hour segments, so the portions shown March 2 as “episode 3” are listed on as “part 5” and “part 6.”

[2] — According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics for 2015 — the most recent ones available on their Web site, — of the 39,392 new diagnoses of “HIV infection” (not symptomatic AIDS, but then the CDC over time has blurred the distinction so that merely testing positive for antibodies to the nine proteins that make up HIV is considered a “disease”), 26,375, or nearly 67 percent (two-thirds) were from “male-to-male sexual contact.” 2,392, or 6.07 percent, were from “injection drug use,” and 1,202, or 3 percent, were from “male-to-male sexual contact and injection drug use.” 9,339, or 23.7 percent, were attributed to “heterosexual contact” and 84, or 0.27 percent, were listed as “other.”