'United in Anger' reveals ACT-UP's surprising intricacies

One of the outspoken women who fought to redefine AIDS to include women's HIV illnesses.

In the end, it was the women who saved us -- and we, in turn, helped save them.

As a gay man, this was one of the lessons I took from Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman's brilliant, sometimes harrowing film, United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, which I caught yesterday at the GLBT History Museum in the Castro, and which screens again tonight Fri/1 at 6pm at the San Francisco Art Institute. The 93-minute movie, bristling with mindblowing archival footage, swiftly but effectively traces the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power movement from its rambunctious beginnings in 1987 in New York, through its major actions like the die-in inside St. Patrick's Cathedral and the storming of the NIH headquarters in Maryland, to its eventual, sad dissipation under the weight of endless death in the mid-1990s. There is a lot of great retro fashion in this, btw.

But what sets United in Anger apart from other AIDS-related documentaries is its special attention to the broader sociological implications of a movement that united not just middle-class white gay men looking to save themselves (a commonly held view of ACT-UP that is specifically addressed throughout the film) but also lesbians, people of color, the poor, the homeless, trans people, and straight men and women people in general. Still, as firm as it is in its convictions, it's never strident, letting the facts and footage carry the case in incredibly moving and sometimes, frankly, aesthetically beautiful ways. 


One particularly effective narrative thread is that of how many women were involved in ACT-UP, who have basically vanished from the common telling of the story. (Another excellent AIDS doc, the SF-centric We Were Here, also directly addresses this point, but not as broadly).

Those women knew this would happen, of course. They even called themselves "Invisible Women." In United in Anger these women are not just given a voice, in effect the whole movie is turned over to them, fantastically, as it documents not just the early movement when hundreds of lesbians and straight women (mothers, sisters, lovers) joined ACT-UP, but the grueling, four-year struggle to get the Centers for Disease Control to redefine the meaning of AIDS to include the related diseases that women with HIV were experiencing, thus granting those women disability and social security benefits, along with better access to treatment. It's worth it to remember that for years women died of HIV, but not officially AIDS -- mostly because AIDS was then considered a white gay man's disease, and "womens' symptoms" were anathema to that stereotype.

This successful attempt at redefinition, which many devoted their last days to making, had huge implications for the fight for universal healthcare (indeed, footage shows some ACT-UP descendants rallying for it in 2007, with an unspoken glance towards Obamacare) and is firmly set in the lineage of women's rights and the fight for abortion access.  

Another revelation for many will be the conscious inclusion of people of different backgrounds and means in ACT-UP -- Asians, African-Americans, the poor, the homeless, the freaks -- who are not just highlighted in the film, but shown to be, in the end, ACT-UP's major impetus. United in Anger doesn't shy of implying that ACT-UP was an expression of the great liberal impulse to fight for equality and visibility, linking it not just to the Civil Rghts movement (from which ACT-UP explicity borrowed such effective strategies as affinity groups and canny press manipulation) but the epic historical battle to wrest power away from the wealthy yet ignorant and award it back to the people. And ACT-UP did have its practical personal triumphs. As one interviewee says, "I wouldn't be here -- the medicines I take now to stay alive wouldn't be here if we hadn't been dragged screaming across the street by police 20 years ago."

The best part of the movie, for me, was that it takes the time to give every activist it shows a name -- and (its own suspense) a set of birth-to-death dates appears all too frequently beneath that name. But beyond immortalizing its players, United in Anger shows ACT-UP to be a classic and inspiring convulsion of the liberal spirit, brought on by tragedy, eventually fading away like a cloud of human ashes, yet living on as an example of what can happen when people join together out of anger and compassion. And it ain't preachy about it, either.  


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