The history told in the documentary How to Survive a Plague may be a recent one, but it’s no less shocking for all that. The story it tells of the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s, the widespread indifference of many in the government and healthcare communities, and the courageous efforts of activists—many of them dying of the disease as they protested—is electrifying, suspenseful, and harrowing.
More than once in my viewing of the movie, I wondered to myself: How did I not know anything about this? How have I not heard this story before? The answer—though it’s no excuse—is that I was born two years into the epidemic in a community where such things were not talked about, like much of America at the time. I experienced the AIDS epidemic, if I experienced it at all, as a distant bogeyman, as a word that was murmured on the news but had little relevance to my life. But in New York’s Greenwich Village, where much of the film is set, it was a nearly apocalyptic threat, claiming more and more victims—many of them gay men—everyday.
The grassroots response to this apocalypse came in 1987 in the form of an organization called ACT UP, an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. As portrayed in the film, “unleash power” is exactly what the organization did. Its heroes—Bob Rafsky, Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, and Gregg Bordowitz, among many, many others—were otherwise ordinary people who found power in themselves to accomplish the extraordinary, gaining the attention of politicians, health officials, drug companies, and scientists to accomplish their goals and save lives. That they managed to achieve results against such odds is astonishing; this film should be required viewing for aspiring activists no matter what their cause.
In one of many moments from the film that has stuck with me, gay activist Larry Kramer silences a petty argument among his fellow activists by pounding on a table as he shouts into the midst of the squabbling: “Plague! We are in the middle of a plague! Forty million infected people is a plague!” (The moment is reproduced at the beginning of the trailer, below.)
It’s a chilling moment, made more so by Kramer’s choice of words: not epidemic, but plague. The incident captures the moral clarity and righteous anger of the film as a whole. How to Survive a Plague pulls no punches—the members of ACT UP are fighting for their lives, and they frequently call the politicians and health officials who drag their heels on finding a cure “murderers.” (It’s hard not to agree, especially when you see the clips of people like George Bush and Jesse Helms displaying indifference and outright homophobia in response to the rising death toll.)
Though the film uses the language of plague to describe the AIDS crisis, a term that comes up just as often, if not more, is war. It turns out to be an apt metaphor, casualties and all, for many of those who fought were themselves dying. In the protests and demonstrations shown in the film, many of the bodies laying down to be beaten with billy clubs and dragged away in police cars were at the same time being ravaged by the disease that ACT UP sought to cure. The film neither lingers on nor shies away from a portrayal of the effects of AIDS—it’s simply presented as a fact, and a fact that gives ACT UP’s crusade all the more urgency.
As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary is marvelously crafted by journalist David France. Largely cobbled together from amateur camcorder footage taken by demonstrators, many of the shots are shaky or out-of-focus. Yet these scenes have an immediacy that might not have been present with a professional cameraperson, and France ably edits the footage together to showcase the raw emotion and kinetic energy of the events as they unfold. Though the film is cerebral, complex, and sometimes heartbreaking, France keeps the film moving along at the pace of a political thriller—which, in some senses, it is: a tale of intrigue, corruption, and systemic rot reaching to the highest halls of power. An early protest scene, in particular, unfolds with all the excitement and peril of an action sequence.
It’s absolutely essential viewing—an engaging, thought-provoking, and emotional film about an episode in recent American history that still isn’t well-known enough. A tribute to some of the heroes of the ongoing war on AIDS, and a memorial to those who didn’t make it, it’s a viewing experience that will stick with you long after you’ve seen it. How to Survive a Plague should jump to the top of your Netflix list immediately.
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