Saturday, March 4, 2017

When We Rise, episode 4 (Hungry Jackal Productions, Laurence Mark Productions, ABC-TV, aired March 3, 2017)

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

The last episode of When We Rise begins in 2006 and continues through 2013, when the first of the two same-sex marriage cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court and the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) was finally ruled unconstitutional — half of it, anyway, the part that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for the purposes of all federal government benefits. The other half of DoMA — the part that said states could refuse to recognize marriages between same-sex couples legally performed in other states — remained in effect until the Supreme Court, in a case from two years later, finally ruled that all restrictions on the ability of same-sex couples to marry violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This was the only episode I’d been able to watch in the company of my husband Charles — we got married during the 4 ½-month “window” between the California Supreme Court’s ruling that the state constitution gave same-sex couples the right to marry and the passage of Proposition 8 by the state’s voters, which amended the California Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (That provision remains in the state constitution, though the Supreme Court threw out Proposition 8 on a technicality in a separate case in 2013 and therefore legal same-sex marriages resumed in California two years before they became legal throughout the country.) While there’s a strong possibility that that decision will be reversed by the new Supreme Court justices President Donald Trump will be able to appoint (Anthony Kennedy, generally a hard-line conservative and the author of the loathsome Citizens United decision that effectively legalizes political corruption by big-money donors, but who’s also the author of virtually every major landmark decision expanding Queer rights, is 80 years old and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 82, and if both of them either die or retire during the Trump Presidency he’ll have a chance to replace them with justices who are likely to overrule the same-sex marriage decisions, the decision banning state sodomy laws, the Roe v. Wade decision protecting women’s reproductive choice and — a particular priority of Trump’s — the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision making it virtually impossible to win a libel suit if you’re a so-called “public figure”), at least for now same-sex marriage is legal nationwide. Charles, who’d been at work when most of the previous episodes aired, liked this one better than the bits and pieces of the previous shows he’d been able to see, at least partly (I suspect) because this is history we lived together and which directly applied to us.

It was focused mostly on the marriage cases and the famous odd-couple pairing of attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies (both of whom are depicted on the program but the actors playing them are not identified on, who had been on opposite sides of the Bush v. Gore lawsuit that decided the 2000 Presidential election, who got together to do a legal challenge to Proposition 8 in federal court. The script by Dustin Lance Black (who also was executive producer of the entire series and directed this final program himself) shows Chad Griffin (T. R. Knight) reaching out to old-line Queer community leaders for assistance in the suit and support for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the organization he founded to coordinate it, and landing one of the series’ lead characters, Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce) — in fact Griffin avoided reaching out to the mainstream Queer leaders because he thought they had screwed up the previous marriage campaigns (until 2012 marriage equality had lost in every state in which it was on the ballot — even in bright-blue bastions like California) and he didn’t want their “advice.” The show also depicted Ken Jones’ (Michael Kenneth Williams) struggle with the storefront church which saved him from drug addiction but also turned out to be homophobic, and the Black church he joins after that which is Queer-friendly and one of whose ministers is a Transwoman who gets hit by a car and killed — and her relatives show up for the funeral and insist on referring to her as “him.” There’s also a Queer-bashing — indeed Black made sure to insert a Queer-bashing scene in all four parts of the program (Cleve Jones was the victim in the first two, an Asian Transwoman in the third and Ken Jones in the fourth), and it wraps up the plot strand of Roma Guy (Mary-Louise Parker) and her partner Diane (pronounced “Deanne,” for some reason) Jones (Rachel Griffiths) by having their daughter marry her long-time boyfriend (so there! Just because she was raised by a Lesbian couple didn’t turn her into a Lesbian herself!) and the love and emotion surrounding this even finally breaks Roma’s resistance to marriage (on the familiar 1970’s argument that marriage was an institution created by the patriarchy specifically to subjugate women) and leads her to accept Diane’s proposal and get married as soon as the Supreme Court lifts the ban on same-sex marriage in California in 2013.

When We Rise, episode four, had some of the same flaws as the previous three — the uneasy perching between “official history” and a richer, deeper, more emotional presentation of the characters as individuals, warts and all — and it missed some opportunities I thought surely a writer as experienced and generally savvy as Dustin Lance Black would have seized on (like the fact that Cleve Jones and Ted Olson had one big thing in common — both had lost people they loved to tragedies: Cleve Jones’ partner had killed himself in the throes of late-stage AIDS and Olson’s wife Barbara had been on one of the planes hijacked on 9/11) — but for the most part it was a profound and deeply moving ending to a sometimes creaky but generally good set of shows on a movement that had laboriously pulled itself out of the shadows and won at least some of its demands. As a written afterword points out, Gay rights are still under attack throughout the U.S.; there is no federal anti-discrimination law protecting people based on sexual orientation or gender identity (the struggle Cleve Jones regarded as more important and immediate than marriage equality) and the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress (as well as Trump’s vice-president, former Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who pushed through the first so-called “religious conscience” law in his state, which allows individual government officials to refuse service to Queer people if giving them marriage licenses or otherwise serving them would violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs” — the Right seized on Pence’s brainstorm as a way of nullifying the same-sex marriage decisions by making sure few Queer couples in red-state America could find county officials willing to marry them even if they theoretically have the right to do so) has, as I noted in my comments on the previous episodes, not only turned the arc of history away from justice (paraphrasing a famous line from Martin Luther King, Jr. actually quoted in the series) and crashing into reverse, upholding bigotry, injustice and religious fanaticism. As Jim Morrison (who himself was pretty homophobic even though Queer poet Arthur Rimbaud was one of his culture heroes and role models!) sang, “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near … ”