Monday, July 2, 2012

Hubbard/Schulman/Cotterill's UNITED IN ANGER: A HISTORY OF ACT UP opens in NY

GLBT history in the U.S., over the long view, remains rather well-closeted (hello, Mr. Lincoln!). The movement's history since Stonewall, however, continues to be ever better documented, and the latest addition to this -- for much of its length, at least -- is a terrific piece of historical reportage that should make many of us, gays and straight sympathizers alike, rethink some of our earlier ideas. UNITED IN ANGER: A HISTORY OF ACT UP tackles the gay activist group, Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), that drove many people (gays included) to near distraction in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the sickness and dying was new and growing fast, and the fear -- experienced by everyone from gays to straights, police to medical professionals -- was at its peak.

What these activists were shouting and doing ran so counter to how many gays preferred to push for change (more quietly, please!) that the organization quickly became unpopular in some circles, gay and straight. However, as the film clearly demonstrates, what ACT UP did often made a positive difference in everything from how AIDS patients were treated to the price they had to pay for, first, life-threatening, then later, life-extending medications.

Directed by Jim Hubbard (shown at left, now, and back in Act Up's salad days, below), written and edited by Ali Cotterill and produced by Sarah Schulman, the film takes us back to the 1980s and 90s, alternating scenes of Act Up in action with those of talking heads (both then and now) describing what the early days of AIDS were like -- and how and why Act Up came into being. Longtime political activist Maxine Wolfe tells us that when she first came to an Act Up meeting, she was shocked to discover that she knew literally no one in the room. But: "It was real," she adds. Says another, "Most of these people were political blank slates."  Early member and media person (she worked for CBS) Ann Northrup explains how the group became determined to "not let this be business-as-usual."

The filmmakers allows us to see, hear and feel Act Up from the inside, rather than simply reading about it in the media, as many of us did at the time -- or worse, hearing about it via stupid sound bites on TV. From the beginning, the organization was rancorous, and arguments were many and heated. One of the clearest, wisest of the voices we hear belongs to a gracious, grey-haired and beautifully-spoken woman named Anna Blume, who recalls the group in those early days as something "Brilliant, organic, that came out of necessity." On its appetite for argumentation and diversity: "It had the freshness of irreverence. And irreverence cannot come from consensus."

When you hear this group screaming "Health Care is a Right!" this can only make you wonder that, more than 20 years later, half our country still does not understand or appreciate this idea. At the time, AIDS research and ministering to the sick and dying was competing for funding with the first Iraq War, and Act Up brought this point home loudly and clearly (below). Of all the activities and protests -- against the FDA, Wall Street, the NIH -- none proved more controversial than that against The Catholic Church and Cardinal John O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Act Up lay down in the aisles and screamed in the pews inside the church, while some 7,000 people gathered outside to protest, saying publicly to the Catholic Church -- because of O'Connor's condemnation of the use of condoms for safe sex -- "Your politics are killing people!"

The documentary is very good about introducing its talking heads with identification and -- if that person is now deceased -- with birth and death years included. It also gives us a wealth of impressive images used on the Act Up posters and artwork -- these were smart, beautifully designed and urgent -- and even, during the NIH protest in Bethesda MD, something I have not seen before: a lovely cloud of rainbow smoke. A later protest of the CDC -- regarding its definition of AIDS not including women -- helped give the lie to a charge that Act Up was simply a group of elitist and privileged gay white men who cared little for anyone else.

Yet soon after all this, we are told that "The movement began to eat itself up from the inside. This was really quite sad to see." Yes? And what came of this? Concerning what were these divisions that so divided the group? We're never told. (A film like the much-maligned but well-worth seeing House of Numbers may give you some clue as to what certain divisions regarding AIDS in the gay and medical communities were about.)

So did Act Up sputter into non-existence?  It would appear not so, as you can still find it on the internet, though its web site (that in NYC, at least) seems a bit out-of-date. Better to click on this link to get the latest news. And click here to see a fairly complete time line of Act Up activities. (At the end of the documentary, the filmmakers thank the thousands of members in the 147 chapters of Act Up nationwide, and in 20 other countries, as well.) See the film, of course, if you want to immerse yourself in an earlier age and in the gay activist organization that ruffled not just feathers but the bird entire -- and yet accomplished many of its goals with swift and surprising success.

United in Anger: A History of Act Up opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema, with appearances elsewhere shortly thereafter. Click here to see all currently scheduled screenings, as well as past screenings at various international and U.S. festivals.

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