At the peak of the AIDS crisis, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) developed an innovative model of social movement organising, featuring provocative direct action, striking visual propaganda and the use of a range of new technologies to document and disseminate its actions. It was also influential in transforming understandings of healthcare, drug testing methodologies, corporate profit motives, mass media reporting of the experiences of the marginalised and attitudes to queer people themselves. Given its major significance in social movement history and its abundant archive of audio-visual material, that ACT-UP had not been a subject for documentary film-makers had been a major source of frustration. With two major features out in 2012, however, that historical anomaly has begun to be corrected.
The better known of these films is the Academy Award-nominated How to Survive a Plague by journalist David France, which has also been optioned as a mini-series. The other is Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: a history of ACT-UP, which he co-produced with prominent queer scholar and long-term collaborator Sarah Schulman. Both centre on the story of ACT-UP New York, draw on similar footage and interview subjects, were funded by similar sources and feature both filmmakers in each film’s credits. However, the documentaries diverge in tone, style and in their central case for the historical significance of ACT-UP.
For France, the lasting legacy of ACT-UP emerges from its early demand to ‘get drugs into bodies’ as a means of curtailing the dramatic effects of the ‘plague’ on New York’s gay male population. His film centres on the efforts of a small subset of ACT-UP, the Treatment and Data Committee, which later split off from the main group as the Treatment Action Group (TAG). This body transformed people’s relationship to the virus through radical self-education, revolutionising the relationship between healthcare providers, medical scientists, government regulators and the affected. France is not wrong – TAG’s activities in many ways transformed HIV care. However, watching his film leaves the viewer with the sense that the history of AIDS activism is one in which a group of (self-) educated New Yorkers, largely white gay men, stopped the plague in its tracks through forcing engagement with major drug companies and government regulators.
A more complicated history is told in Hubbard’s film, which sees the group as an object lesson in social movement organisation. Hubbard’s focus is on the tactical and strategic decisions of ACT-UP, including its use of weekly mass meetings and affinity groups. This dual structure allowed for collective decision-making, as well as autonomous organising in trusted small groups. United in Anger also places a much greater emphasis on visual imagery, graphic design and video, documenting the collective Gran Fury, whose iconic designs transformed the nature of social movement art, the Damned Interfering Video Artists Television (DIVA-TV), which recorded and distributed footage of ACT-UP’s actions, and the later ACT-UP Oral History Project, which Hubbard and Schulman coordinated.
Hubbard is also concerned that his film records not only the experiences of white gay men. Lesbians and other women were central figures in ACT-UP, as people who understood through their own experiences of organising against the unjust nature of privatised healthcare and inadequate public infrastructure. The impact of these injustices on the poor became more prominent as the virus increasingly affected broader populations. Hubbard’s documentation of the roles of IV drug users, people of colour, women and homeless people reveals that ACT-UP was much more than just a drug access movement. It saw that the institutions that governed US society – corporations, the state and the church – were all in need of radical transformation.
As a queer man who is just a few years younger than the central figures in this story, I am fortunate not to have had to live through the deaths of hundreds of lovers and friends. As beneficiaries of the legacy of ACT-UP, we must honour this history as a history of collective resistance to a virus that resulted in the radical transformation of treatment and health care for many people living with HIV. It is also essential, however, for us to honour this history as one that shows that access is an insufficient demand; our movements must be willing to demand structural and social change. Sometimes this requires us to literally put our bodies on the line.
As long as there is no cure for AIDS, as long as access to human needs is conditional on wealth and privilege, and as long as injustices remain in the world, ACT-UP’s battle is not over. These films remind us of those who struggled, achieving partial wins and suffering many, many losses. They also call on us to continue to ‘ACT UP, Fight Back, and Fight AIDS’.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill