Civil rights is certainly one, if not the most important events of the twentieth century, from sexism to racism, but in the eighties came something that was distinctive from other prejudice-based national struggles. The AIDS epidemic rose to alarming infection rates and yet the methods of fighting and treating it where limp at best. Enraged that their survival was not considered to be paramount by their government, the largely infected gay population, namely the Greenwich Village community in New York City, banned together to form ACT UP, an AIDS activism campaign whose fight to obtain lifesaving medication for those with the AIDS virus is the subject of How To Survive a Plague.
When it first reared its ugly head AIDS was a death sentence, period. As the infected began to multiply, suffer, and die communities began to worry that their government wasn’t taking the illness seriously. And so began the efforts of ACT UP, who fought to test and legalize effective treatments for the disease as well as raise awareness for equal treatment in hospitals. The combined voices of LGBT rights activists like Peter Staley and Jim Eigo as well as medical professionals like Iris Long suffered through sit-ins and arrests and rallies and deaths of their friends until in 1996 the treatment came – and everything got better.
Plague isn’t a canonization of the champions of the anti-AIDS movement. Yes the pain and struggle is at the forefront of the message, but director David France isn’t shy about revealing where the proponents got it wrong, from baseless anger-fueled attacks to internal organizational turmoil. France includes interviews with members of the National Health Institute and like organizations to include their side of the story, instead of letting benign neglect of their stories vilify them and leave this story one-sided. The most moving moment of all the wonderful footage collected for the film is an ACT UP meeting where members whine and argue with one another, until activist and playwright Larry Kramer lets loose and chides them like children. “We are in the middle of a plague,” he shouts, “PLAGUE!” Discrimination may have been the largest tangent of the AIDS fight but it wasn’t the main one. Human beings make stupid mistakes that get them in all sorts of horrible trouble, but that doesn’t mean they are any less human or unworthy of redemption. Whatever one’s personal beliefs might be, this film at its roots is a reminder of how easily we take for granted our right to life.