United in Anger: A History of ACT UP: Film Review

Insider portrait of group whose "job was not to be liked" makes sense of its origins and achievements.

Jim Hubbard's doc offers a straightforward biography of the group who battled Ronald Reagan and bigotry at the outset of the AIDS crisis.

Making a confrontational movement accessible without diluting its life-or-death message, Jim Hubbard's United in Anger: A History of ACT UP offers a straightforward biography of the activist group as seen from within its ranks. It should play well on the small screen after a short theatrical booking.

In opening titles making a few stark assertions -- 40,000 people died of AIDS in the U.S. between 1981 and 1987 (others sources offer different figures), a period during which Ronald Reagan couldn't say the disease's name in public -- the film establishes both the immense fear within the gay community and the way that fear and anger attached itself to uninformed, foot-dragging, or oppositional politicians and institutions.

Following an onscreen timeline, the doc begins with Larry Kramer's call for a protest movement in 1987, using copious period footage to show how quickly New Yorkers took to the idea. Video shot in meetings and on the streets shows a movement that, in laser-guided messaging and organization, contrasts with some current protest movements -- a comparison made inevitable as we hear one ACT UP member suggesting they take over an official building "by occupying it with our bodies."

With chapters focusing on major demonstrations at the FDA, Wall Street, NIH and White House, the film charts the movement's evolving mood and expanding agenda. If bystanders at the time saw them as mainly making a lot of noise, Hubbard and his many interviewees cite an impressive number of successes arising from these events; sped-up drug approvals, lowered pharmaceutical costs, and various bureaucratic victories, seen in hindsight, allow veteran activists to express satisfaction they couldn't show while chanting accusations or being hauled out of sit-ins in handcuffs. They also acknowledge how central ACT UP meetings became to participants' social lives, with some members attending meetings every night; in between the die-ins and agit-prop campaigns, we hear, "ACT UP was very sexy."

Achievements or no, the film suggests that, with a demoralizing wave of AIDS deaths in the early '90s, the "movement began to eat itself up from the inside." The inside is what we're privy to, in a film that chooses not to hear from any critical (or laudatory) outside voices; in that respect it is very much an outgrowth of Hubbard and producer Sarah Schulman's ACT UP Oral History Project.

Though the film sets out only to chronicle the group's life, not the history of the disease, some viewers will wish for a parting message making sense of where things stand today, with the disease mostly vanished from headlines but still destroying lives around the world.

Production Company: United in Anger, Inc.
Director: Jim Hubbard
Screenwriters: Ali Cotterill, Jim Hubbard
Producer: Sarah Schulman
Director of photography: James Wentzy
Editor: Ali Cotterill
No rating, 92 minutes.