Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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’.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency