25 Years Later, The AIDS Protesters Who Defied Rejection
Thirty years ago there was a plague.
Today AIDS has faded into the historical twilight, associated with drug cocktails and charity benefits for Africa, not certain death. Those of us who came of age when AIDS was treatable don’t—maybe can’t—know the fear, the bodily devastation, the social stigma, and the inexplicably provincial feeling of it all, like the apocalypse happened only in certain communities.
“How to Survive A Plague,” a new documentary from David France, chronicles the response of one of these communities: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
Founded in 1987, ACT UP was known for its confrontational actions: In response to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms’s anti-gay rants on the floor of Congress, activists swathed his house in a giant condom; the group’s disruption of mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (due to an anti-condom push by Cardinal John O’Connor) is one of the most notorious pieces of activist theater in the last century. Less visible were the efforts of the organization to educate itself about the mechanism of AIDS and possible treatments, or the long battle over drug creation and approval—a primary focus of the new documentary.
Using primarily archival footage, France places the story of ACT UP in members’ own hands. Many interviews and audio clips are pulled from the ACT UP Oral History files (archivist Jim Hubbard co-produced the documentary); the few interviews France conducted with former members are there as long-term reflections.
This allows for an immediacy in the film’s study of a nascent organization, of its growth into a political and even scientific force, and of its frenzy to do something, to survive. The audience is there as ACT UP celebrates the release of a drug to cure AIDS-related blindness; we are there when former J.P. Morgan broker Peter Staley incites the crowd at the 1990 International AIDS Conference to chant against anti-gay immigration policies; we are there as the National Institutes of Health announces that it will include community representatives on its AIDS committees.
But the story of ACT UP is not strictly one of triumph. The committee created to understand the science behind AIDS and lobby for better medicines causes a schism in the organization, eventually splitting from it entirely to become the Treatment Action Group. Meetings with officials go poorly at first; police brutality at protests is rampant. The deaths of activists leave others devastated.
People we have come to know as fathers, lovers, and firebrands tell the camera that they have no hope in their own survival. Some of them don’t—friends and family members are cremated and tossed on the White House lawn in the documentary’s climactic moment.
After that, the denouement: The first round of AIDS drugs, so bitterly won by ACT UP, prove useless; but the legacy remains in the development of new drugs, new protest methods, new awareness.
In this, there is a quiet symmetry between the movie and the movement it profiles. ACT UP brought together AIDS patients who refused to die quietly and presented them to the world; the protagonists of the film, in turn, waste away before the camera and a latter-day audience.
In one interlude artist Ray Navarro, seen earlier dressed as Jesus in front of St. Patrick’s, languishes in a hospital bed. His smile is gone; his eyes are huge, haunted with pain. His mother is holding the camera. He asks her not to forget him. He could be talking to viewers in 2012; as we forget the utter horror of death decades ago, we forget the heroism of the men and women who faced it.
With lessons for activists and an epilogue of information about AIDS and justice today, “How to Survive a Plague” has much to offer young people—not least a remembrance of those who came before.
The legacy of struggle in the midst of so much pain is a powerful inheritance. France has pieced together a memorial of sorts. Although many of the film’s subjects do not survive the plague, their works and communities do. In that the dead endure—as long as we remember them.
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.