Larry Kramer is a well known civil rights activist and writer who is probably most famous for his “PLAGUE! PLAUGE!” speech when he was campaigning for medical support for AIDS patients in the 1980s. A new documentary that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival chronicles his entire life, his work, and the philosophies that undergird it. The documentary will broadcast on HBO this summer on Kramer’s 80th birthday.
The documentary itself is pretty basic. It consists of interviews with Kramer and his friends and colleagues augmented with archival footage. The film loses focus mid-way through and spends a little too much time chronicling the AIDS protests in the 80s broadly instead of focusing directly on Kramer’s work. It finds its focus again eventually. The protest history is interesting, but it has also been covered more extensively in other documentaries, like last year’s Oscar nominee, How to Survive a Plague. This film is about Kramer, and it excels when it stays focused on him.
Kramer is the kind of guy who makes everyone angry. He is a gay rights activist with a penchant for being antagonistic. He is abrasive, because he believed that was the only way to get the attention. He also angered the LGBQT community, because he constantly calls them to follow a more rigid sexual ethic. Kramer condemns promiscuity, and since gay persons have had their sexuality suppressed by society for their entire lives, they react in anger toward Kramer. To them, he sounds like all the people who have always told them they were broken because they were gay.
Kramer’s point in both cases is that gay persons are more than their sexuality. They are fully human. Society owes them the same considerations it gives non-gay persons. Gay persons owe themselves a life full of more than sex.
The documentary makes the point explicitly that Kramer acts as an Old Testament prophet in that he speaks and demonstrates truth regardless of whether or not people want to hear it. I would take it that a step further, and say that Kramer is like an Old Testament prophet in that he campaigns for the complicated loveliness of every person. All people are worthy of love and shouldn’t settle for anything less. So yes, Larry Kramer comes across as an angry man, but that anger is fuels by humanity’s proclivity to not love itself well. He wants everyone to love better.