Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary Feature at last night's Academy Awards, is a puff piece that exists to deify its subject, Sixto Díaz Rodríguez. It is less a documentary than a montage of fawning over this American folk musician who released two albums in the early '70s, only to be ignored and then rediscovered by South Africa. We hear that he was bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones there, that he moved 500,000 copies of his debut Cold Fact there, that he's "like a wise man prophet" with "a genuine quality that all poets and artists have to elevate things." Someone says, "Bob Dylan was mild [compared] to this guy."
Earlier this week, the key AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)/Treatment Action Group (TAG) activist Spencer Cox died in New York of AIDS-related causes. He was 44 years old. Cox and his colleagues essentially made the current, life-extending treatment of AIDS what it is through their knowledge, force and will. As one person in David France's How to Survive a Plague documentary puts it, "Activists created a system that was able to do everything faster, better, cheaper, more ethically and more effectively." Gay men (with the help of crucial allies) essentially saved themselves, though the documentary warns that people with AIDS are not yet out of the woods. Cox's death is a very sad reminder of just that.
The most satisfying cinematic moment I've experienced all year occurs during the last 15 minutes of David France's documentary How To Survive a Plague. I don't even want to hint at what it is because it could risk depriving you of the rush it gave me. What works like a movie twist feels like an epiphany in this chronicle of the first nine years of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. Just know that if you care about social justice and gay rights, you should see this film. And if you don't know much about ACT UP's history, you will be wowed.