SF man's memoir inspires LGBT miniseries
by Matthew S. Bajko
The eight-hour miniseries ABC has ordered from gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black will be partly based on the memoir of longtime LGBT activist Cleve Jones.
Jones, 61, moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and soon befriended the late Harvey Milk, who would make history in 1977 as the first gay person elected to public office in San Francisco and California. Jones, who worked on Milk's campaign for city supervisor, would go on to work for him at City Hall.
But a year later Milk was assassinated along with then-Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White. The events leading up to their deaths were the basis for the 2008 biopic Milk , for which Black won an Academy Award for best screenplay.
Jones served as an adviser on the film and became close friends with Black. In fact, in recent years, Jones would stay with Black in Los Angeles in order to work on his memoir.
The book details the life of Jones, who in response to the AIDS epidemic created the AIDS quilt and co-founded several agencies to care for people living with HIV or AIDS. Jones himself is HIV-positive, and in the early 1990s, moved to the Russian River gay resort area north of San Francisco where he expected to die soon after due to his failing health.
But then came the introduction of antiretroviral therapy and Jones' health improved. For a while he was living in Palm Springs, but in 2010 he moved back to San Francisco. In addition to speaking to students and youth groups across the country, Jones works as a union organizer.
He recently sold his autobiography, When We Rise , to Hachette and the hardcover is scheduled to be released in late May. It includes the stories of a number of his friends, such as lesbian health care advocate Roma Guy and Ken Jones, a longtime gay city resident who was the first African-American chair of what was then known as the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration Committee.
Later chapters delve into the story of Cecilia Chung, a transgender woman who currently serves on the San Francisco Health Commission. Guy also served on the Health Commission and was the founder of the Women's Building in the city's Mission district.
Black decided to use Jones' memoir as source material for his miniseries, which will also be titled When We Rise and include the stories of Guy, Chung, and Ken Jones.
In a post on his personal blog in April, Black noted that ABC had added When We Rise "to its slate of dramas for the 2015/2016 season. The show will focus on the personal and political struggles, setbacks and triumphs of a diverse group of men and women from the LGBT community."
Like he did when he worked on the script for the Milk film, Black has conducted extensive interviews with the LGBT leaders featured in Jones' book and others who will be portrayed in the miniseries.
"I have read the first episode's script. I think people will be very proud of it," Jones told the Bay Area Reporter .
He believes the television series will avoid the controversy that engulfed the widely panned Stonewall movie this fall. It was harshly criticized for downplaying the role of people of color and transgender individuals at the 1968 riots tied to a police raid of a New York City gay bar.
"We are not fucking up on the diversity issue," said Jones.
The miniseries will be divided into six episodes, with the first and final both two hours long. Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk , which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, is directing the pilot episode.
"It is kind of a huge deal," said Jones about the project. "It basically follows a few people, all of whom decided to come to San Francisco."
The Hollywood Reporter first reported in July 2013 that ABC had hired Black to pen a miniseries about the modern LGBT rights movement. It is being referred to as the LGBT version of the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots about slavery.
"ABC created the genre of the miniseries when they did Roots ," noted Jones.
He and Black, who is engaged to British Olympic diver Tom Daley, were recently in San Francisco scouting out locations with an ABC executive. Like with Milk, they are aiming to shoot as much of the miniseries as they can on location in the city.
Casting of the roles is currently underway, with filming slated to begin sometime in early 2016.