Documentary highlights the legacy of ACT UP

“United in Anger” details the triumph and turmoil behind the pioneering work of AIDS activists in the 1980s.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

What: “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP”

When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday

Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $9

 

When the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power first took to the streets of New York in 1987, Jim Hubbard stood behind his lens ready to document history. Armed with a 16 mm camera, he began to chronicle the efforts of a community in unrest.

Combining the personal recordings, archival footage from the era and new interviews with ACT UP members, “United in Anger” traces the birth of the revolutionary movement to raise awareness of AIDS. Hubbard’s film represents not only a living tribute of the efforts to fight a pandemic but a prescient examination of a revolutionary activist group.

Following ACT UP’s birth, Hubbard recasts the history of the AIDS crisis within the scope of the group — a powerful reminder of the disease and its political and social implications.

“Since the advent of the cocktail [Azidothymidine or AZT], AIDS has become part of the landscape,” he said. “It’s no longer a crisis. It’s just there — it’s been normalized.”

ACT UP’s core volunteers provide a provocative voice throughout “United.” From the famous “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when a multitude of bodies interrupted a mass, the public performance art gave voice to the neglected LGBT community. Hubbard says his film was initially born out of the media’s one-note portrayals of AIDS patients.

“I had wanted to make a film, but it was problematic because I wasn’t going to do what the media was doing, which was stigmatizing people with AIDS, portraying them, at best, as pitiful victims,” he said. “I wanted to look at the more complex and larger and more sympathetic social and political implications of the disease.”

Hubbard’s initial efforts to follow ACT UP resulted in “Elegy in the Streets,” an early precursor to “United in Anger.” Now with the addendum of hours of recent interviews via Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project, the film presents a thorough examination of the chaotic period.

ACT UP graced TV screens across the country as newscasters reported the group’s visually arresting demonstrations. Among ACT UP’s social and political concerns, Hubbard remembers the group’s key efforts to make AZT, an early HIV/AIDS treatment, highly accessible. Still, he sees the movement as largely having been erased from Americans’ collective memory.

“We have to do something about this erasure of the work of thousands of AIDS activists who forced the US government to deal with the crisis,” he said.

“United in Anger” represents a personal look into the crisis alongside the social unrest of ACT UP. When Hubbard first started experimenting with film, he recorded his ex-partner, Roger Jacoby, and his ensuing battle with AIDS.

“[Jacoby] was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and wanted to be filmed,” he said. “I started filming him for the last year and a half of his life.”

Death still looms for 34 million HIV/AIDS patients worldwide, but “United” ultimately shows that direct action can lead to concrete change. The film’s a witness to an incredible social uprising, a powerful force not to be forgotten.

“People are utterly amazed that something this vibrant and important could be erased from history,” he said.