There had been nothing quite like the gamble that ABC had taken with “Roots.” Not until now. “When We Rise” is a four-night miniseries that premieres Monday, February 27, and continues from March 1-3 (ABC News will interrupt the flow by broadcasting President Trump’s address to Congress live on February 28). The alphabet network is devoting 480 minutes to depict the rise of the gay rights movement, from the Stonewall Riot, the rise of lesbian sisterhood, the scourge of AIDS, and the struggle for marriage equality.
Forty years ago, the idea of a broadcast network devoting long stretches of programming to a single event was still thought of as a bit of a novelty. Yes, ABC had previously had success with a three-part adaptation of Leon Uris’ book “QB VII” in 1974 and a 12-part weekly miniseries of Irwin Shaw’s “Rich Man, Poor Man” in 1975. Shortly after, when the network announced that a miniseries based on Alex Haley‘s best-selling book “Roots” would air on eight consecutive nights in January, 1977, that upped the ante considerably. What if it’s not good? What if the audience has no interest in a story about slavery? “We may be stuck with an eight-night flop!”
Of course, not only was that not the case, but “Roots” became a television landmark and a ratings smash — its finale became the second most-watched series finale in history. Soon afterward lots of miniseries began to flood television and flourished for some time, gradually evolving into the form now called “limited series,” telling a single story over the course of 6-10 episodes. However, unlike “Roots,” most of these “limited series” have aired on a weekly basis, just like any other show.
As with “Roots,” ABC has done something smart — they have cast the film with good actors and in some cases great, award-winning actors. Skeptical? Including the writer, director and the 10 most significant cast members of “When We Rise,” the members of this star-studded ensemble have been nominated for 149 major awards, winning 37 of them.
Still skeptical? Let’s take a look at their starry track record:
Dustin Lance Black (Writer/Creator) — One Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay (“Milk”) (2008)
Gus Van Sant (Director – Episode 1) –Two Oscar nominations for Best Director (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”)
Guy Pearce portrays Cleve Jones, LGBT Activist) — Two SAG Ensemble nominations (“L.A. Confidential,” “The King’s Speech”)
Mary-Louise Parker (Roma Guy, women’s rights activist) — Three Tony Award nominations with one win (“Proof”), eight SAG nominations, seven Emmy nominations with one win (“Angels in America”) and five Golden Globe nominations with two wins (“Angels in America” & “Weeds”).
Rachel Griffiths (Diane, Roma’s wife) — One Oscar nomination, six SAG nominations with two Ensemble wins (“Six Feet Under”) (2003, 2004), four Emmy nominations and four Globe nominations with one win (“Six Feet Under”) (2002).
Whoopi Goldberg (Pat Norman, first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Health Department) — Two Oscar nominations with one win (“Ghost”) (1990), two Grammy nominations with one win (the 1986 original cast album of her Broadway debut), 14 Daytime Emmy nominations with two wins — (“Beyond Tara”) (2002) & “The View” (2009) and nine Primetime Emmy nominations.
Rosie O’Donnell (Del Martin, co-founder of the first lesbian organization in the country) — 15 Daytime Emmy nominations with 11 wins for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and five Primetime Emmy nominations with one win for “The 52nd Annual Tony Awards” (1999).
Michael Kenneth Williams (Ken Jones, African-American community organizer) — One Emmy nomination, three SAG nominations with one Ensemble win (“Boardwalk Empire”) (2011).
David Hyde Pierce (Dr. Jones, Cleve’s father) — 11 Emmy nominations with four wins for “Frasier,” five Golden Globe nominations, 19 SAG nominations with two wins, five Golden Globe nominations, two Tony Award nominations with one Best Musical Actor win (“Curtains”) (2008).
Carrie Preston (Sally Gearheart, gay rights activist) — Two Emmy nominations with one win (“The Good Wife”) (2013), one SAG Ensemble nomination.
Denis O’Hare (Jim Foster, an openly gay Democratic party organizer) — Two Emmy nominations, two SAG Film Ensemble nominations, two Tony Award nominations with one Featured Actor in a Play win (“Take Me Out”) (2003).
Richard Schiff (Judge Vaughn Walker) — Three Emmy nominations with one Supporting Actor win for “The West Wing” (2000), six SAG Ensemble nominations with two wins (2000, 2001).
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