ACT UP: Films for Learning More About the AIDS Epidemic

In honor of World AIDS day, here are some films that teach you more about the AIDS epidemic. Not only do these films honor those who fought (some while dying), they are shining examples of how to organize and make an impact against all odds. 

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012) 

A documentary made using archival footage and interviews with ACT UP members, United in Anger shows the fearlessness of those who turned to activism in a time of immense grief. What is most interesting about this film is how many of the topics brought up during the AIDS crisis are still being fought for today. While most people think of AIDS just as a movement for LGBTQ equality, ACT UP also did crucial work regarding healthcare and the immorality of drug companies that raise prices on necessary drugs in order to raise profits.

The Normal Heart (2014) 

Based on the play by Larry Kramer, Ryan Murphy’s moving film stars Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks (basically a version of Kramer himself). Weeks gets a lot of criticism within the community, especially from those who are too taken by grief to feel ready to fight. This central conflict is what I love most about the film. Ned even deals with conflicted feelings while trying to be an activist and while caring for friends and partners. There is also Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a doctor furiously looking for a cure. Through her, we see the limits placed on medical professionals, especially on their ability to work with other countries. The Normal Heart is a testament to the power of being a loudmouth, even if it makes people less inclined to be your friend. 

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017) 

BPM is an odd film. Unlike many films about the AIDS Epidemic, most of the scenes take place in a lecture hall. Specifically, the lecture hall where ACT UP Paris meets. What could’ve easily been a French version of The Normal Heart instead becomes an analysis of the planning and internal organization needed to make an impact. The viewer gets to see the conversations (and some arguments) in action. They are the central plot points. After all, the French really protests like nobody’s business. The meetings can be as urgent as their next protest or as simple as coming up with an idea for their Pride float. While the film does focus on a few individual members, the group is a testament to all the people impacted by AIDS. The group is made up of gay men, addicts, parents whose children are HIV positive, and those new to the gay community looking for a sense of family. Robin Campillo’s film is a great combination of organizational education and compelling storytelling. 

Pride (2014) 

Pride focuses less on the AIDS epidemic and more on the joining of forces between two different groups of activists. The film includes several positive characters, including Jonathan Blake (Dominic West), the second person diagnosed with HIV in the United Kingdom. A group of gay activists, led by the boisterous yet lonely Mark, decide to support the miners on strike during the Thatcher administration. When they travel to Wales to meet the miners, they find out that not all of them are accepting. Through getting to know both groups, it becomes clear how essential intersectionality is to make a real impact. No one is free until we all are. We are all connected, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand. 

Holding the Man (2015) 

This Australian drama is the story of Tim and John, two men together since childhood. While John is shy, Tim is loud and energetic. Their bond feels natural as can be. This film focuses a lot on the personal struggles during the AIDS crisis. While Tim is an activist at university and always stands up for himself, John’s family is less accepting. Both sick, John starts to deteriorate quickly, leaving Tim worried about his ability to attend John’s funeral and have any power about what happens to the assets of their shared life. The politics of dying become very clear, especially when you can not be legally married. 

Angels in America (2003) 

The HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic will take you much longer to get through than any of the above films, but it is worth it. When Prior is diagnosed, him and his partner Louis start to spiral out of control. The story also follows Harper and Joe, a mormon couple failing to connect. For me, the most politically charged scenes are those between Roy Cohn (yes, like the real man) and Belize (the nurse assigned to him in hospital). Belize (The always incredible Jeffrey Wright) is a gay black male nurse taking care of a closeted racist with massive control in New York City politics. While Cohn is often vulgar and unappreciative of Belize, he continues to do his job. Often, Belize is used to bring other characters into perspective. There are several philosophical debates between characters about the ideas of Justice, Law, Religion, and how those function in the United States. While this series has less to do with political activism, the philosophical conversations and diversity of the characters point to a version of New York City struggling to comprehend all that America symbolizes. 

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