The American activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) birthed itself in 1987, when the US AIDS epidemic was in its sixth year. Despite ferociously rising rates of infection and death, the US government and medical establishment had failed to address the crisis in any meaningful way—by 1987, AIDS had killed nearly half a million people, and yet there were still no medical treatments available to patients, making HIV infection 100 percent fatal. New York City was the epicenter of the epidemic, and even here, hospitals disposed of AIDS casualties in black garbage bags, with some hospitals refusing to take AIDS patients at all. It was a desperate, dire time, and it inspired writer/activist Larry Kramer to deliver the searing call to action that led to the formation of ACT UP, a loose-knit group of lawyers, students, artists, stockbrokers, bookstore clerks, and grieving mothers of AIDS patients united in their demand for immediate, widespread help in fighting AIDS.
ACT UP's accomplishments can hardly be overstated. Through a series of direct actions ranging from the pointedly whimsical (kiss-ins, covering Jesse Helms's house with a giant condom) to the brutally confrontational (selling black-market AIDS meds outside the FDA, dumping loved ones' ashes on the White House lawn), ACT UP forced the fast-tracking of HIV drugs, rewrote the FDA's treatment agenda on AIDS, and made the AIDS crisis impossible to ignore. In How to Survive a Plague, documentarian David France captures the group in all its brilliant, messy, heroic glory, thanks to a wealth of footage of ACT UP in action, from the earliest gatherings to the legendary mid-mass protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral. (Dear whoever hauled that humongous '80s-era camcorder all over Manhattan: God bless you.) The film captures with great vitality this invaluable chunk of American history, and it will make you cry at least three different times. Don't miss it.