Monday, July 09, 2012

ACT UP's 'United in Anger'
Screens at NYC's Quad Cinema

The orchestra section of the Castro Theater was packed for the 11 a.m. screening of "United in Anger" at last month's Frameline film festival in San Francisco. Given the relatively early unspooling on a Tuesday no less, I expected no more than one-hundred in attendance but my expectation was happily exceeded.

"United in Anger" gives an insiders' view of how the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power came into existence, and accomplished so much to benefit people with AIDS, their families and friends, and individuals at-risk of contracting of HIV. Full disclosure: I am in several sections of the film, so it's impossible to be truly impartial about it.

This documentary captures the rage and fear of so many during the 1980s when infection rates and deaths were soaring, effective treatments were unavailable, President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say the word AIDS much less treat the epidemic as the medical crisis it was, and too many Americans just didn't give a damn about AIDS, drug users and gay men.

At first, it was painful to watch so many dead friends and activist colleagues at organizing meetings at Manhattan's gay community center, storm federal health agencies and the White House, invade St. Patrick's cathedral because of Catholic clergy undermining public health policies and stage countless pickets and protests. It was quite a weird experience seeing myself on the Castro's big screen, standing on a pew inside St. Patrick's and yelling at the top of my lungs at Archbishop John J. O'Connor, while the entire action received roars of approval from the audience. 

As more scenes unfolded, I found the pain gave way to pride and happiness seeing these brave friends fighting for their lives and the lives of others that have to name some of them: Phil Zwickler, Bob Rafsky, Scott Slutsky, Costas Pappas, Ortiz Alderson, Danny Sotomayor, Tom Schultz, Rodger McFarlane, Aldyn McKean, Steve Michael, Jeff Gates, Tony Malliaris and Randy Schneider.

By focusing solely on the membership, and eschewing federal health experts and researchers or Big Pharma representatives, we see how a relative handful of people came together in a scary and deadly time came together and gave themselves the power to effect beneficial changes. No need for those outsiders to render approving comments.

Some of my favorite scenes include Jim Eigo speaking about our advocacy for universal healthcare for all, Heidi Dorow explaining our passion, Bill Bahlman taping the meetings, Alexis Danzig speaking about her father dying of AIDS, Larry Kramer state that politicians and reporters fearing our wrath was a good thing, Matt Ebert expressing his joy having been a member, and Gerri Wells articulating our anger in her Brooklyn accent.

Primarily about ACT UP/New York's work and leaders, "United in Anger" includes footage of activists from other chapters and at least one of their actions, the Chicago chapter's demonstration against the American Medical Association headquarters. Now that we have two documentaries on the granddaddy of all ACT UP chapters, this film and "How to Survive a Plague", I hope we soon see films about the dozens of other chapters that were active domestically or abroad.

Toward the end of "United in Anger", the half dozen or so political funerals and processions in Manhattan and Washington, DC, confusingly blend together in a rush of footage and I speak as someone who was present at several of the funerals. The film could be edited better to give each funeral clarity and its proper due.

Director Jim Hubbard and producer Sarah Schulman have created a fascinating testament, one that gives proper due to the volunteers of ACT UP and their fearless courage. Hubbard and Schulman present the depth and breadth of the group's membership, a diversity of people that greatly aided the vital democracy of the organization in its heyday that allowed everyone to propose an action or become a leader.

The end credits, which I enthusiastically applauded, pay homage to hundreds of activists, dead and living, who were members of various chapters or helped make this film possible. And reading the list of all the ACT UP chapters around the world is a powerful reminder of how our do-it-yourself accountability approach spread far and wide, and instilled in LGBT people pride and the desire to liberate ourselves.

"United in Anger" is playing through July 12 at the Quad Cinema in New York City. Click here for showtimes and ticket info. The film is also screening on the gay and documentary festival circuits, and more details about those screenings can be found at the film's web site.

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