The compelling documentary How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, explores how activism helped alter public opinion and empower people diagnosed with HIV during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Using archival footage of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP ) and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), David France excellently captures the stirring losses, achievements and solemn victories of the movement while reflecting on a journey in which too many lives were lost to the disease. The film is a testament to the power of people organizing and emphasizes that organizing – coupled with knowledge – has the ability to create meaningful change. How to Survive a Plague is an inspiring and important film as it gives ordinary people who have an interest in a cause but fearful or uninformed the courage to organize. Successful organizing doesn’t necessarily require an extensive knowledge base but rather change is determined by people with a passion for revolution.
The documentary reveals how the U.S. government initially ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis by not acknowledging its existence, researching or funding treatment due to homophobic beliefs and mere ignorance. People with HIV/AIDS were confronted with a high level of stigma and discrimination which was perpetrated by a government that refused to take action. The prejudice that faces people who are HIV positive – many of which still exist today – arose in part because HIV/AIDS was initially thought to be contracted only by gay men and intravenous drug users. These stigmas were also amplified by the fact that there was no definitive evidence about the cause of AIDS or its transmission. A few activists within ACT UP – who later emerged as coalition leaders and spokespeople in the formation of TAG – examined aggregated health information of patients, friends and family and used it to create an epidemiological foundation that was then used to understand the science of the disease. This information was helpful in researching drugs and alternative treatments options and strategically challenged government policies. Armed with this knowledge, ACT UP advocated for access to treatment as well as continuous research for better drugs that prolonged lives.
This rousing documentary definitely elicits an emotional response. however throughout the film one can’t help but notice the absence of people of color and women within the coalitions and from important discussions. While the film highlights discrimination against gay White men, it shadows other issues like the intersections of race, class, gender and sexual identity among members of ACT UP. The first cases of HIV/AIDS in the African American community were identified in the early 80s. Even though Black people were the 6th and 7th people identified to have contracted the disease, there was a lack of awareness because HIV/AIDS was largely portrayed as a “White gay man’s disease.” As we know now, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate and the epidemic soon exploded in African American communities. Black Americans began forming organizations like Harlem United to raise awareness and respond to community outcries for support. Harlem United now provides holistic healthcare, treatment and education to individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Forming partnerships with organizations and coalitions like Harlem United would have made the political action of ACT UP and TAG more inclusive and increased solidarity.
Today, African Americans are most likely to be affected by HIV and AIDS and it is estimated that 1 in 16 Black men and 1 in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives. Organizations like Harlem United are important to Black communities that are struggling with the consequences of the epidemic. Providing holistic services to people living with HIV/AIDS, raising awareness on the transmission of the disease and providing access to clean needles are essential to reducing it’s impact on our communities. If you know of other organizations that are committed to fighting HIV/AIDS in communities of color, let us know in the comment section.
by Odia Barker, a Masters of Science degree candidate studying Nonprofit Management at The New School