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Interview with the Producers of United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP

Interview with the Producers of United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP
Morgan Goode

Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman have been collaborators for 25 years. In the mid-eighties, when Ed Koch was mayor of NYC and queers were fighting to pass a bill that would keep them from being denied housing and thrown out of restaurants, Jim was filming the queer movement and Sarah was covering it as a reporter of the gay newspaper the New York Native. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) was formed in February 1987 and both Jim and Sarah joined.  Jim and Sarah also founded the MIX Festival (The New York Queer Experimental Film Festival) that same year and the ACT-UP Oral History Project in 2001 where they have collected over 100 video interviews of ACT-UP members.

In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, David Wojnarowicz wrote: “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.” We are very fortunate indeed that Jim and Sarah have worked so hard to preserve this history that differs sharply from the one told by mainstream media. The resultant feature-length documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, is an inspirational film told from the point of view of the activists themselves and features rare archival footage of ACT-UP actions and meetings as well as interviews from the oral history project. Tickets for the February 16th world premiere go on sale today at the MoMA box office for the general public. (MoMA members may purchase their tickets online now.)

PQ: What made ACT-UP successful?

JH: I made a movie to answer this question and anyone who really wants to know what I think should go see United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP. The universal lesson of ACT-UP is that a small number of people who study the issues intensely, who understand them better than their adversaries and who are absolutely focused on their objectives can change the world.

SS: From ten years of studying ACT-UP and from my own experience as a member from 1987-1993, ACT-UP was successful because it allowed each person to act in a way that made sense for them. As a result there was an exhilarating simultaneity of action that resonated together, creating a larger force. ACT-UPers were desperate for success and so everyone was welcome. It was an activist organization- theory emerged organically from actions. Its aesthetic and language emerged organically from people’s lived experience. It was not derivative. There was no theoretical conversation that was not applied. Also, it attracted a particular kind of person, someone who was characteralogically unable to stand by in the face of injustice. There was enormous empathy, unity and group support, even though almost everyone told us that they’d felt like an outsider. People were valued for their strengths and hard work above all else. Many ACT-UPers did not know each other’s last names or what they did for a living. All social status was irrelevant. What mattered was how effective you were at your active task. These are great values, and I carry them to this day.

Many ACT-UPers did not know each other’s last names or what they did for a living. All social status was irrelevant. What mattered was how effective you were at your active task. These are great values, and I carry them to this day.
– Sarah Schulman

PQ: Within ACT-UP there were a range of actions from the 7,000 people action at St. Patrick’s cathedral to smaller actions. How long did it take to plan an action, from conception to execution, and what were the steps?

JH: It depended on the action. Complex demonstrations like Seize Control of the FDA and Storm the NIH took months of planning. Changing the CDC definition of AIDS took 4 years and consisted of many demonstrations and related events. Zaps could happen overnight. The Kiss-In at St. Vincent’s Hospital to protest the abuse of queer people and people with AIDS at the hospital was decided in minutes. There was a discussion of the problem and what the response should be. I remember it took less than half an hour and then everyone left the meeting and walked over to St. Vincent’s and took over the place.

Whatever the length of the planning the process, the steps were essentially the same:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Learn everything there was to know about the issue.

3. Decide on the best response.

4. Logistics: Do outreach to ensure the largest possible turnout, create chants, rent buses, make signs, etc., etc., etc.

5. Do Action!

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  1. Che

    Thank you for this powerful footage from and insightful and inspiring interview with the producers of United in Anger, Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman. I can’t wait to see it at the MOMA! Also, just want to mention that there are several ACT UP collectives still organizing, contining the intersectional legacy of ACT UP members like Ortez Alderson and Kiyoshi Kuromiya, including ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP Paris. Thanks again!

  2. Cyd

    I am so excited about this interview. I’ve read it twice and I want to read it again. Thank you for writing and doing it!

  3. Thanks for the informative interview!

  4. Morgan Goode

    Thanks all! It was my pleasure – Jim and Sarah continuously amaze and inspire me.

  5. I totally missed reading this when it came out, but this is fantastic, thanks for sharing this totally rad interview!

  6. ES

    Having seen the film, I was struck by how much it reflected the very whitness of early Act Up days, and the decided lack of faces/voices of queer women of color in particular, and would have liked to hear some commentary on this from the producers.

    • completely on topic

      yes, this was a massive issue! super-massive! and as you can imagine, it was one of those situations where the “main floor” (GWM majority) was always hostile and self-defensive when the issue was raised. the “women’s caucus” was also mostly white, and POC women felt alienated by that (the white lesbians basically having the same questions and debates on inclusion that white FTM’s seem to have on this site, which only alienated the POC women more). so the POC caucuses were therefore destined to be “safe spaces” where non-POC were also unwelcome as violators. everything was operating on incredibly essentialist terms, even if many people were versed in anti-essentialism. as one of those people who didn’t fit cleanly into the main floor nor any adjunct caucus, they were tricky times. the gender and race dynamics were definitely never overcome within the group as a whole. not even close.

  7. completely off topic

    i realize this is soooooo off topic, but for some reason i keep seeing bob newhart whenever i look at that picture of jim, lol.

    had to laugh when i saw that i made it into their trailer, too! :)

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