David France on the Plague Years: The history and survival of ACT UP
“Death wasn’t being responded to as a public health problem,” David France says. “It was dealt with with sniggers. It was left to religious leaders to explain or respond to the epidemic. And they responded by calling it the wrath of God.”
He adds: “That’s the hostility we all saw in the beginning, the early days. It was certainly the first of many major hurdles that AIDS activism had to climb.”
France's first film, How to Survive a Plague, works as a primer to his investigative journalist—he has written at length about the AIDS epidemic, the subject of this stirring documentary about the activists in ACT UP, which helped rally the gay community in a fight toward greater AIDS awareness and prevention—but also “a witness to the plague both as it’s unfolding and as people recalled it.”
To achieve this effect, France shows both ACT UP’s rhetorical strategies and demonstrations, typified by their consummately articulate and well-organized head instigators and public demonstrations, including die-ins outside City Hall in Manhattan and the placement of a giant condom over Jesse Helms’s home.
As a counterpoint, in How to Survive a Plague he reminds us of the limited nature of discourse surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and most of the ’90s. Chillingly, during a Crossfire interview in which ACT UP spokesperson Peter Staley questions why the FDA was not more actively pursuing upwards of 140 experimental drugs as potential cures for AIDS, the two interviewers—inducing Pat Buchanan—counter Staley’s prepared, measured rhetorical questions with barely contained hostility.
That reception was hardly isolated. France shows members of ACT UP fostering “a cultural community, a group of people that were fundamentally connected to one another.” But as activist and playwright Larry Kramer—whose writing and public speaking inspired Plague’s title—argues, continuity is vital when discussing AIDS activism.
This sentiment is especially important when you consider that in recent years, Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom Kramer calls the gay community's “biggest murderer,” has at last endorsed and adopted treatment policies suggested by ACT UP members.
Fauci has not explained why it took him so long to come around. France jokes that he knew when he interviewed Fauci that he would not be filming Fauci’s “McNamara Moment,” in which Fauci admits that he “knew what he’d done.”
“History knows what he did and didn’t do, and why he did and didn’t do it,” France told me. “You’d like him, just like Jesse Helms or Ronald Reagan or any of the Bushes, to come clean, to recognize for forgiveness for their own crimes and failure. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Many of the talking heads here also appear in France’s pieces for many publications, including—way back when—this one. In these, France discusses the possibility of finding sustainable AIDS prevention, as well as what motivates people like the now-deceased Christine Maggiore, an activist who denied the lethality of HIV and even claimed that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. (Maggiore, who publicly made it known that she was HIV-positive, died of pneumonia-like symptoms that could have been prevented had she taken anti-HIV medication.)
Seeing the key ACT UP members (and France subjects) who have survived the epidemic is heartening proof that, to a large extent, ACT UP succeeded. How to Survive a Plague, like France’s writing, it is not so much a conversation-starter as a means of further spurring on a continuing conversation that has already been happening for decades now. Its vision of the past is a means of galvanizing future discussion.
David France is a contributing editor at New York magazine. His writing has been featured in outlets including Newsweek—where he was a senior news editor—Vanity Fair, GQ, and The Village Voice.
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