By Carol Faulkner
Rachel Lindsey recently asked about our favorite documentaries for teaching. I haven't used United in Anger yet, but I plan to do so the next time I teach a class on sexuality, social protest, and/or religion. This film by Jim Hubbard, which grows out of his work on the ACT UP Oral History Project, explores the history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and its efforts to both raise awareness and transform government policy, from its founding in 1987 through 1993, when the large number of deaths devastated members (the organization still exists). ACT UP's tactics were confrontational and controversial, but ultimately successful. The film shows archival footage of protests at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control, and, as one member recalls, panels reviewing AIDS drugs for approval eventually--and for the first time--included HIV-positive individuals as experts.
One of themes of the film is the diversity of ACT UP members. This organization was not limited to gay white men, as many might assume. Hubbard interviews dozens of individuals in the documentary, from over one hundred interviews in the ACT UP Oral History Project, and more activists are identified throughout the film, including, tragically, some with their birth and death dates. The activists are/were men and women from all different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, united in their need to do something about the disease ravaging their bodies, friends, families, and communities.
Historians of religion and social movements will be interested in the film's coverage of the high-profile demonstration known as "Stop the Church," targeting John Cardinal O'Connor and New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral on December 10, 1989. The film shows the debate within the organization, with activists divided over how disruptive to be during a Sunday mass, the scheduled time for the protest. Some activists noted that they were not protesting the Catholic religion, but the church's policies. ACT UP did not overcome these divisions, but, in the spirit of their non-hierarchical organization, went into the demonstration divided. During the mass, protestors staged a "die in" in the main aisle leading up to the altar. The film shows parishioners looking askance at the bodies, while the mass proceeded as usual. Soon, other protestors began yelling, asking O'Connor to justify the church's deadly restrictions on condom use and sex education, and police moved in to arrest the protestors. Immediately outside the church, Sandy Schulman, now Hubbard's co-producer and co-founder of the ACT UP Oral History Project, was interviewed, and she argued that the disturbance had worked against the protestors because they lost the sympathy of the people in the pews. Another ACT UP veteran and interviewee (also a woman) argues that the protest was a success, costing the Catholic Church some of its political power in the city. In addition to the activists inside, this member points out that thousands demonstrated outside the church.
This documentary will give ACT UP a prominent place in the history of American social movements. Like abolitionist come-outers, most notably Stephen S. Foster in "The Brotherhood of Thieves, or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy," ACT UP made the controversial decision to condemn religious institutions for their moral failings. I hope "United in Anger," which includes a helpful study guide on its website, and the Stop the Church demonstration, will provoke interesting class discussion about the value of social protest, the pros and cons of "the church" as a target and location of protest, and the role of religion in the midst of a public health crisis like AIDS.
For more information on the image and others like it, see the New York Public Library.