A year ago, When We Rise might have looked like a victory lap, an old-fashioned history of the LGBT-rights movement that, after many an uphill battle, ends with the triumph of marriage equality and hopes for the future.
Now, ABC's airing of the eight-hour mini-series this week could be read as an act of resistance to changes like Wednesday's decision regarding transgender students' use of bathrooms, and not just a reminder that progress that may seem to some to have occurred with blinding speed didn't, after all, happen overnight.
You can take -- or leave -- your relevance where you find it, but Dustin Lance Black, who began work on the project several years ago, was looking to build bridges, not blow them up.
"I didn’t write this show for half a country. I think, if Donald Trump actually watches this show ... he might like" it, Black, the Oscar-winning writer of 2008's Milk, told reporters last month.
I'm guessing that's optimistic. But then, so is Black's story, in which a loosely connected group of activists succeed in changing hearts, minds, and laws, by focusing less on their individual differences and more on working for a common good.
Yet it's the individuals who make When We Rise watchable, lifting it above the San Francisco-centric survey course it occasionally threatens to become.
The show, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday and, after a break for President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday, continues on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, stars Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Rachel Griffiths as the older versions of real-life activists whose lives first begin to intersect in 1970s San Francisco.
Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Ken Jones, and Diane Jones (none of the Joneses is related) are as notable for their staying power as their causes, which aren't limited to gay and lesbian rights.
"It was important to me, in deciding who to depict, that many, if not most, are still alive," Black said, because he wanted to to show younger people that it's possible to work for change without becoming a tragic hero.
"Often we’re [gay people] allowed to be ... a supporting character, and funny at first, usually. Then you’re allowed to be dramatic as long as you die at the end. I've made one of those films," said Black, whose mini-series revisits the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, subject of Milk, and Mayor George Moscone, by supervisor Dan White.
"I thought this was the time when we finally needed to make sure we showed that you can live a life of purpose and survive and thrive, and that is what these real-life people did, and I do hope that they inspire a new generation."
With the exception of Pearce, whose character's reminiscences help tie the four nights together ("My mom called him the Forrest Gump of the gay movement," Black said), the show's bigger names wait their turns as Emily Skeggs as Roma and Jonathan Majors as Ken steal the early part of the show.
Skeggs brought the '70s rushing back for me as the sometimes hilariously, sometimes painfully, earnest Roma. Here's how she responds to what she considers an indecent proposal, extended over tea: "I don't have time for one girlfriend, let alone two. Thank you for the terrible tea. But I have fliers I need to be stapling up to protect us from the patriarchy."
Majors' performance as an African American Vietnam veteran who struggles to reconcile his attraction to men with his religious beliefs adds resonance to Williams' later depiction of a much-changed Ken. (I mostly found the transitions of the two-actor characters jarring, however necessary.)
AIDS, just around the corner, will transform the main characters' lives as well as the movement that unites them. Cleve Jones' conception of the AIDS Memorial Quilt leads to one of the show's most arresting images — a view of the quilt, whose tens of thousands of squares contain the names of AIDS victims, laid out and filling up the National Mall. Like the show itself, the shot may resonate differently after last month's inauguration.
When We Rise grew out of ABC's expressing interest in stories of LGBT history, Black said, and despite its overlaps with Milk, required new research.
"When I was doing Milk, I couldn’t sell that or set it up to save my life. I had to finance it on a Capital One Visa card. And all of a sudden, here was ABC looking to do something in this area, and so I jumped," he said.
"I grew up in the South. I grew up in a religious home. I grew up in a military home. I grew up in a conservative home. My family is still religious and Southern and conservative, and I love them, and I treasure them, and I treasure much of what I learned and how I was raised in that world. And so I wrote this for my cousins and my aunts and my uncles and my family. I wrote that for my family from that other America to say, 'Hey, we’ve got more in common than you think, and we can actually speak the same language,' " Black said.
"Historically, ABC has been the network that we trust to tell us family stories. So I thought, if there was a network where I could finally say, 'Hey, I’d like to introduce my family,' you’ve got it do it on ABC."
Curious about the real people depicted in the mini-series? ABC will air a documentary, When We Rise: The People Behind the Story, at 8 p.m. Thursday.