A Portrait of Activism: “How to Survive a Plague”

As Americans head to the polls to exercise their franchise, many amid concerns of voter suppression, the role of each person in society is underscored. Individual activism matters. Coalesced into group action—it is mighty.

It is impossible to watch David France’s documentary, How to Survive a Plague, without considering the parallels of three decades ago to today’s cultural and political landscape.

It seems very distant, considering that in the mid-eighties William F. Buckley suggested that AIDS patients should be tattooed and too many Americans supported quarantine for those stricken with AIDS. St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan shunned people with the “mysterious” illness. Bodies of those who had died were transported in black plastic trash bags to funeral parlors—many which ultimately refused to accept them.

A shot of the Twin Towers in one scene reminds the viewer that the era is pre-9/11. However, when playwright Larry Kramer declares, “Health care is a right,” the rally cry resonates in numerous ways. Statistics flash on-screen to inform the audience that currently 5.500 people die daily because they can’t afford the cost of AIDS drugs, and there is no universal access to needed medication. That translates to four deaths per minute.

Just as social media impacted and helped to drive the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, the rise of AIDS coincided with the camcorder coming into the marketplace. Over 700 hours of footage was culled in order to create the documentary. Production credits reference thirty separate sources. Both public and private stories are captured and interwoven.

The film transverses three presidential administrations, and evidences the lack of urgency in responding to the health crisis. Yet, by the time the 1992 Presidential contest comes around, activists insist that the candidates address the AIDS issue.

A disease that was nearly 100 percent fatal spurred a movement that demanded action from government and Big Pharma—while standing up to complacency. Seeing the story unfold in a sequential time line helps to emphasize the magnitude of what was accomplished. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing the rifts and dissent within the ranks of the gay community. Despite differences, everyone pushed forward, albeit using different strategies.

The first ACT UP demonstration, in March of 1987, would lead the way toward a new form of protest as performance art. “Silence=Death” and “Act up, Fight back, Fight AIDS,” became rallying cries. Two years later, ACT UP would take the conflict to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, confronting Cardinal O’Connor. They called out discriminatory policies in Catholic hospitals, schools, and shelters. The stipulation: “Stop Killing Us!” Kennebunkport, the home of George H. W. Bush, was on ACT UP’s list in 1991. By that year, the death toll had reached 2,400,252. In 1995, it was 8,204,200.

Through self-education, organizing, and being resolute in getting a response, a group of determined citizens were the catalyst for multi-drug treatment that saved six million lives. They were unwilling to accept the indifference of their country’s government and health institutions.

The history recorded in How to Survive a Plague is a testament to personal acts, and the refusal to accept an agenda that was inert and destructive.

It’s an important lesson.

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID

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