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‘When We Rise’ Creator Dustin Lance Black: ‘This Show Is Under Attack From the Alt-Right’

Variety logo Variety 1/10/2017 Oriana Schwindt
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ABC’s upcoming limited series “When We Rise” is a sprawling, eight-hour history of the LGBT rights movement, tracking key figures from their first days as activists to the present day. It has already come under fire from the amorphous online community known as the “alt-right,” an offshoot of the conservative moment that mixes principles of white nationalism, racism, and populism that is hostile to the entire notion of social justice.

An impassioned Dustin Lance Black, who created and executive produced the project, took the stage Tuesday morning at the Television Critics Association Winter press tour to dispel any notion that his upcoming limited series is anything other than an effort to reach across the gaping divide between two seemingly diametrically opposed groups of citizens.

“This show is under attack from the alt-right online,” Black said. “But this show is not a war. Every single person in this world is a minority, depending on how you slice the pie, and this show is about how we are connected.”

Black said he began to suspect a coordinated effort to smear the project when he noticed a string of nasty comments on the YouTube posting of the “When We Rise” trailer that were mostly racist and anti-Semitic in nature. He started to follow the digital threads and found that the commenters’ handles were associated with self-avowed “alt-right” groups. He also said he found a YouTube video that breaks down the trailer with a psycho-analysis of Black’s relationship with his own father. As hurtful as it was to watch, Black said he found parts of it amusing. “I thought, ‘This guy is actually funny.’ If he and I met in a bar we’d probably actually get along,” Black told reporters after the session.

Those exact people are the ones Black said he is hoping to reach with the series. Black wrote the show not for the part of the country that tends toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, but for his conservative, military, Christian family in the South. But his goal, he added, was never to create a show that felt like a lesson or propaganda.

“I think there’s a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show. I don’t see this show as only trying to speak to half a country,” he said. “I think if Donald Trump watches the show he might like the show. We can speak the same language.”

Black wasn’t surprised at the way the election swung: “As a student of history, we know history is not a straight line; it’s a pendulum,” he said. And so he views “When We Rise” as a way, in part, to show social justice advocates how to prevent the pendulum from swinging too far back.

The average life span of an activist is a mere three to six years, and so it was important to Black to hold up as examples real people who have kept fighting across decades, like black community organizer Ken Jones (Michael Kenneth Williams) and gay rights activist Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce). “You’re going to face backlash from within the community as well as outside, and you have to survive that as well,” Black said. “Whenever you’re depicting a social justice movement, first, you’re allowed to be a supporting character as long as you’re funny. Then you can be dramatic, as long as you die at the end of the movie. But you can live a life of purpose and survive and thrive.”

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