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The Last One

by Louise Adams
Thursday Oct 2, 2014
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A scene from 'The Last One'
A scene from 'The Last One'  

Nadine C. Licostie's comprehensive and poignant documentary "The Last One" recounts the genesis of the Names Project Foundation and the expansion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt into over 48,000 individual panels.

Cleve Jones found his mentor Harvey Milk's murdered body, and it was at a subsequent Milk memorial march that he got the idea to remember the early victims of the "gay men's strange disease," as newspapers called it at the time, by naming the dead, first with a patchwork of placards on the San Francisco Federal Building.

Jones recalled the quilt his great-grandmother made for him from leftover pieces of his great-grandfather's pajamas, and the powerful symbols they carried of family love from generation to generation, to not throw anything away, that everything is useful.

He knew that a quilt, unlike an NIH protest, could cross boundaries, raise funds and draw people into the movement. "If gays were a community, the early 1980s was the time to show it," Jones said.

Force of nature and quilt production manager Gert McMullin is also interviewed, and says, "We should be ashamed of the way we treated HIV-infected people as a country. Many wore moon suits and were afraid to touch patients." She first volunteered at the original quilt workshop on San Francisco's Market Street, which Jones started to help loved ones "desperate to find a way to grieve."

McMullin personally knew over 300 who died and has made 120 panels herself. "I've had the privilege to have touched almost every panel," she said. "I call the quilt 'my boys.' I'm their mother."

"The AIDS Memorial Quilt was created as a weapon in a war against a disease and the cruelty, bigotry and stupidity the disease exposed."

In 1987, the growing organization took the quilt to lay out in Washington, D.C., "an act of public grieving, a laying down of our dead in front of the White House, asking, 'When are you going to stop this?' "

Jones eloquently encapsulates the gay rights movement, then and now, through the story of the quilt, which he "created as a weapon in a war against a disease and the cruelty, bigotry and stupidity the disease exposed."

The film transitions from the gay male death toll into the currently affected communities of color, where African-Americans and heterosexual women are infected at disproportionately higher rates, offering archival newspaper clippings and effective graphics to illustrate sobering HIV/AIDS stats: 1 in 4 infections in the US are in persons younger than 24 years old; 60% of youth are unaware of their infection; and there are 50,000 new infections every year, as there has been for the past 23 years.

Quilters in Atlanta, home of the CDC and Dr. King (as well as abstinence-only sex education), note that "public health issues are also social justice issues." The women recall that their community originally thought that AIDS only affected the "4H's: Homosexuals, Haitians, Hemophiliacs and Heroin Addicts," as they sew new 3' x 6' panels, the size of an average grave. "We're making the largest mobile cemetery," the Spelman College organizer noted. "We are standing on holy ground."

After 16 years of touring to schools and shopping malls, the quilt returned to D.C. for the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to continue to share the message that everyone is affected by the pandemic, that people continue to "suffer and die under stigma, shame and silence." One of the panels displayed there said "The Last One," and Jones, McMillan and the Names Project are still waiting to attach it.

For information on screenings, visit thelastonefilm.com

Louise Adams is a writer, actor, educator, yogini and nom de guerre. @MzzzAnthrope

This article is part of our "Out On Film Atlanta" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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