This essential film is currently only available to Baltimore audiences on Comcast On Demand. When it comes to theaters, I will re-post the review.
It’s fitting that David France’s stirring and powerful documentary is titled like a how-to guide, because the film—which tells the story of ACT UP through astonishing archival footage, home video, and contemporary interviews—is an object lesson in how to create a successful activist movement.
1. Get a lot of pissed off people. ACT UP began because a lot of young people were dying and the government and the NIH and the FDA weren’t doing enough about it. And because this threatened community—many gay young men—were being cut down in the prime of their lives, there was an energy, an urgency, and a sense of righteous anger that was palpable. Many of the members of ACT UP had AIDS or the HIV-virus themselves; many had lost a loved one to the disease; some just refused to sit by idly during a holocaust. (Full disclosure: One of the members of ACT UP who is featured prominently in the film is my dear friend Spencer Cox. I couldn’t be more proud of him.)
2. Know your stuff. The members of ACT UP realized early on that if they were going to take on pharmaceutical companies and chemists, they needed to talk the talk. They met at each other’s homes for “study groups” where they poured over medical research and became well-versed in drug trial protocol. They were so knowledgeable, they had to be taken seriously.
3. Be willing to put yourself on the line. The members of ACT UP went to the frontlines of the war against them: Press conferences with then-Mayor Ed Koch (and later presidential candidate Bill Clinton), the NIH, the archdiocese of New York, even the White House. They were willing to get arrested in order to be heard.
4. Have some great taglines. Of course, Silence = Death was the most famous. “ACT UP, Fight Back, Fight AIDS” was another. But my favorite was “The Whole World is Watching”—often yelled as cops with billy clubs went after peaceful protesters.
5. Use humor, too. Covering Jesse Helm’s house with a condom gets an A+.
6. Have a great spokesperson. The man I remember most representing ACT UP, and one of the stars of the film, is Peter Staley, who was puckishly handsome and articulate and not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Pat Buchanan. He gave the movement its glamorous rock star. (That’s him pictured above.)
7. But have a street poet too. The film introduces us to Bob Rafsky—and touchingly shares home movies he made with his young daughter and ex wife (his coming out led to his divorce; but he and his ex-wife maintained a warm, familial relationship). Rafsky was a pugilist, a fighter—more confrontational than the diplomatic Staley—who wasn’t afraid to heckle Bill Clinton at a speech but also had the capacity to deliver one of the most searingly beautiful impromptu eulogies for a fallen comrade I’ve ever heard.
8. Have elder leadership. The playwright Larry Kramer, the Yoda of the gay rights movement, if you will, has one of the most powerful moments in the film, when he stops some bickering among opposing factions within ACT UP, by yelling, with tears in his eyes, “PLAGUE!” He goes on to chastise the members for losing sight of their life-and-death mission.
9. Learn to work with “The Man” Another stirring moment: Staley is addressing a conference at the NIH. But instead of adopting an “us against them” mentality, he’s wise enough to create a “we.” By the end of his speech, he has the scientists chanting the ACT UP slogan. Chills.
10. Know when to take a seat at the table. As ACT UP became more prominent, it became clear that it had outgrown its anti-establishment roots. So an off-shoot group called TAG (Treatment Activist Group) was created. While ACT UP wore tee-shirts, the members of TAG wore suits. They were able to give the movement its final push into the mainstream.
The film is inspiring, but of course, at times hard to watch. We lose far too many of these beautiful, brilliant young men. Is it a tad manipulative that David France treats the moment where he slowly reveals how many of ACT UP's leaders are alive today as a bit of a surprise ending? Perhaps. But it was well earned. I bawled my eyes out. They fought for themselves and others, many died, some survived, and the whole world owes them a debt of gratitude.