The broken thread in the narrative, his film argues, is the role the gay community played in directing and shaping the medical research that eventually led to the drugs that now prolong life, apparently indefinitely, for most of those lucky enough to have access to them. Groups such as ACT UP, the militant-yet-disciplined activist organization that put the story on the nightly news and forced it onto the political agenda, also shaped the history of medical research. Susan Ellenberg, a statistician who was working for the National Institutes of Health at the time (and who appears in France’s film), agrees with that assessment. Today, thanks to the work ACT UP did a generation ago pioneering participatory medicine, patients and families of patients are intimately involved in shaping the research agendas of scientists working on breast cancer and a host of other diseases, says Ellenberg.
“United in Anger,” another recently released AIDS documentary, takes France’s argument even further, suggesting that ACT UP helped drive arguments still in play today about universal health care, poverty and racism. Both films present the once-feared and widely derided activist group, which fell into bitter infighting and fast irrelevance in the mid-1990s, as an innovative, even revolutionary force in American politics. And they recast the history of AIDS to include something of which the people involved, and younger generations of activists, can be proud.
They also question cherished pieties of mainstream politics, reminding a new generation about the devastating indifference and neglect of the Reagan and first Bush administration in dealing with the disease. Old archival footage shames open bigots such as Sen. Jesse Helms, who is seen fulminating against Sodomites on the Senate floor. And figures now seen as grandfatherly avatars of an innocent yesteryear, such as George H.W. Bush, are heard piously and impatiently condemning a generation of men who were inconveniently dying on their watch. Both films also address the highly controversial ACT UP protest at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, called to challenge the Catholic Church’s influential condemnation of condoms, the only hope of survival for sexually active people during the crisis. The hostility directed at the group after disrupting a religious service is now seen in a broader more sympathetic historical perspective.
“I think ACT UP changed the world,” says Kramer, author of “The Normal Heart.” Kramer was founder of ACT UP, and now a legendary and legendarily irascible eminence grise in the gay movement. “The Normal Heart,” which had an off-Broadway run in 1985, offers a pre-history to the period covered in the two recent AIDS documentaries. Set in 1981-84, it is one of the bleakest documents of the early days of AIDS, an unrelenting howl of fear and anger that was almost unbearably raw when it first premiered. Broadway producer Daryl Roth organized a staged reading of it October 2010, and the response was powerful enough that she brought the play to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards.