United in Anger: A History of ACT UP is an inspiring documentary about the birth and life of the AIDS activist movement from the perspective of the people in the trenches fighting the epidemic. Utilizing oral histories of members of ACT UP, as well as rare archival footage, the film depicts the efforts of ACT UP as it battles corporate greed, social indifference, and government negligence. (Imdb)
“Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!” Words repeated over and over at protests during the AIDS crisis in America that took place in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At the front of these protests was the group ACT UP, short for the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power. Started in 1987 in New York City, it was initially a group of 300 men and women angry at the government’s dismissal of the AIDS crisis that quickly exploded into thousands of men and women of all races, sexual orientation and income groups. The documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, directed by Jim Hubbard, seeks to explore the evolution of the group chronologically, from their first meetings, to gatherings and protests as recently as 2007.
When ACT UP was at their peak of activity they worked closely with a guerilla television show called DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists). As a result there is a wealth of archival footage that makes up almost the entirety of the documentary. Between long intervals of camcorder footage there are interviews with some of the members of ACT UP and groups that worked closely with them.
The backbone of this documentary is the visual chronological timeline that it follows, going through each event day-by-day, year-by-year. Initially the timeline moves very rapidly, leaving the viewer exhausted at the influx of information bombarding them. However, once the initial six months of activity has been covered, the timeline slows to focus heavily on some of the very significant events that took place during ACT UP’s peak.
My first exposure to ACT UP was through a university modern art class, where we spent some time looking at the artwork of Gran Fury, which was a collective that designed all of ACT UP’s posters and protest signs, including the iconic “Read My Lips” posters. Despite knowing the basic history of ACT UP, I did not realize the intensity of their anger or have any real knowledge about the organization. There were moments during this documentary that brought me to tears, and although their methods to show the public just how many people AIDS has killed may seem unorthodox, they are incredibly haunting. In a stand-out protest from the ’90s a group activists scattered the ashes of their loved ones who had died of AIDS on the White House lawn. Moving, effective and incredibly sad.
United in Anger is clearly a labour of love and does a fantastic job of reminding this generation of how hard not only the gay community, but also people of all races and genders, fought for basic human rights. There is a focus on clarifying that members of ACT UP were aware of their privileges and attempts to include members of all groups that the AIDS crisis affected. Despite initially being a group of mainly white gay males, they worked closely with separate activist groups that included women, the poor and ethnic groups. All of these groups were united together fighting the same cause, and United in Anger does a fantastic job capturing the spirit and electricity in their protests. (Stephanie Hubbard, THETFS.CA)