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United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

If the AIDS crisis has crested, it's due in large part to the radical advocacy group so intelligently portrayed in "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP," a documentary that could have been a lot angrier but aims to educate rather than agitate.

With: Ann Northrup, Eric Sawyer, Ron Goldberg, Tom Kalin, Peter Staley.

If the AIDS crisis has crested, it’s due in large part to the radical advocacy group so intelligently portrayed in “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,” a documentary that could have been a lot angrier but aims to educate rather than agitate. Providing a historical context for the Occupy movement, the health-care debate, the political sway of the religious right and the culture of the portable camera, Jim Hubbard’s feature should find theatrical success in gay-friendly cities, but will have a greater impact via TV, for which it could easily be trimmed to fit.

Long before a lot of Occupy protestors were born, ACT UP was taking over the Food and Drug Administration, staging a Sunday morning “die-in” on the floor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and scattering the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn. Their efforts polarized the public, but succeeded in getting a response from a government many considered criminally silent on the subject of HIV and AIDS.

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Hubbard’s film, which he produced with fellow AIDS historian Sarah Schulman, features a cast of super-articulate veterans of the AIDS movement, virtually all of whom affirm that ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) employed risky strategies; members weren’t going to win Catholic friends, for instance, by interrupting New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor’s Sunday sermon. But they also attest to the idea that the governmental neglect of the AIDS crisis called for nothing less than a scorched-earth public-relations policy.

Between 1981 and 1987 (as one of the film’s many, many informational subtitles points out), 40,000 Americans died from HIV-related causes. Politicians like New York mayor Ed Koch were MIA or worse; President Reagan didn’t utter the word “AIDS” until late in his second term. Some of those interviewed make much of the idea that there was public support for the internment of AIDS patients, without acknowledging that when pollsters ask certain questions in certain ways, they get predictably loopy answers. But the idea that gay people were the target of divine retribution had considerable traction on the lunatic fringe, for whom pro-gay meant anti-God.

Amid all the interviews with noteworthy figures in the movement, the docu provides a behind-the-scenes look at some of ACT UP’s more notorious exploits, including the St. Patrick’s demonstration, the Wall Street protests against the extortionist pricing of early AIDS drugs like AZT, and the invasion of CBS Studios during Dan Rather’s newscast, a bit of news that CBS immediately cut away from and subsequently ignored.

In assembling the pic, Hubbard had extensive access to ACT UP and its “affinity groups” (notably Damned Interfering Video Activists, or Diva TV), recording everything the org did. Today, such a strategy would be second nature; in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it wasn’t. Production values are adequate, as much of the archival footage, often shot under adverse conditions, came from a variety of sources.

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

Production: A Jim Hubbard/Sarah Schulman presentation. Produced by Hubbard, Schulman. Directed by Jim Hubbard.

Crew: Camera (color), James Wentzy; editor, Ali Cotterill; sound designer, Kevin Seaman. Reviewed on DVD July 3, 2012. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Ann Northrup, Eric Sawyer, Ron Goldberg, Tom Kalin, Peter Staley.

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