For most people under the age of 30, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is merely an event in a history book that has been conveyed secondhand by those who actually lived through the horror and fear of the 1980s outbreak. Advances in modern medicine have been able to solve the main problem of HIV/AIDS in the developed world by allowing those financially capable to live silently with the disease, softening much of the public activism of a currently worldwide problem. Most media these days don’t cover stories on the epidemic, which still kills over 11 million people every year. As a result, those who have no strong memories of the 80s tend not to understand the horror that the deadly disease brought to the world. Not only did HIV/AIDS bring about death, but it also introduced with it a stigma that elevated the level of discrimination and homophobia in the United States. Fear infested the country in a way that no other disease had done in modern history, tapping into core social issues that catapulted one of the largest social rights movements in the United States. Language is limited in its ability to repaint the past to the fullest, but with the help of other art forms such as film, we are able to live through times not of our own and understand the emotions that words struggle to define. This list is a compilation of five films that can help those who have little or no recollection of the outbreak to understand its severity and for others to remember it.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), the HBO movie follows a gay activist in New York, Ned Weeks, who attempts to raise awareness for the HIV/AIDS outbreak that is killing many of him close friends. The film tackles, front and center, the national politics surrounding homosexuality and its severe effect on the ability to obtain funding for the disease that was largely stigmatized to be a gay problem. The intricately woven storylines illustrate the struggle of the gay community in the 1980s, juggling the hardships of social acceptance to love and the fear of their seemingly inevitable death, unless they find a way to make the world listen to their pleas. Julia Robert’s monologue in the heart of the movie exposes the unreasonable silence of the U.S. bureaucracy towards the disease, which is complemented by a later scene between Ned Weeks and his older brother that summarizes the stigma that caused the disease to kill more people than necessary. Although a highly dramatized version of the urban side of the 1980s, The Normal Heart accurately summarizes many of the major issues that led to the terrifying atmosphere following the AIDS outbreak in the US and through the many gut wrenching monologues, illustrates the intense emotions experienced by those most affected.
Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013)
Based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, Dallas Buyer’s Club sheds light on the struggle for HIV medication during a time when the disease was poorly understood. The film portrays the desperation of the HIV/AIDS community for a viable treatment juxtaposed by the medical authorities reluctancy to quickly approve drugs for use. Set at the time when AZT was only starting human trials, Ron Woodroof actions exemplifies the majority of the infected population, who went to great lengths and were willing to try anything and everything for the chance at life. These themes are bedazzled with the business drama that came with the Dallas Buyer’s Club, but the movie nonetheless is able to shed light on many other issues of the time, including the stigma surrounding the disease in conjunction with homophobia. From the forefront, we see the rejection and uneducated precautions Ron’s friends showed towards him once they knew of his status which was the largest collateral struggle for most of those infected in the 1980s. The story of Dallas Buyer’s Club depicts Ron Woodroof not as an activist by many means, but more of an example of the commoner, those who were rejected, those who were desperate, and those who against all the social and political barriers of the 1980s, clawed their way through, some surviving and others not.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Nothing is more realistic than being in the midst of the action itself and How to Survive a Plague does exactly that. Made with real footage from ACT UP meetings and protests, this Academy Award-nominated documentary follows the story of the organization that fought for a larger effort from the government to more efficiently administer HIV/AIDS drug approval and availability. The film displays the intensity of the battle up close, showing arguments during internal meetings and footage from protests and demonstrations that were the main contributors to the success of the organization. The famous protests outside the FDA offices help the audience understand the desperation of the community for a faster approval of drug treatments. The film highlights the anger and the frustration of the HIV/AIDS community towards the American bureaucracy who were not giving the disease the full attention it needed. It also tackles many of the group’s secondary efforts to combat the social forces working against them especially the Catholic church. How to Survive a Plague really brings the audience into the perspective of the activist, helping them understand firsthand the immense struggle and determination of the community to save not only their own lives, but the lives of their friends and family.
We Were Here (2011)
This documentary that earned praise at Sundance Film Festival in 2011 paints what it was like to live in San Francisco during the AIDS outbreak. Through the testimonials of five people from different walks of life, each of whom experienced the epidemic from vastly different perspectives, the film gives us a comprehensive and deeply personal view of those who watched their friends, families, and neighbors die day after day, without warning and without answers. It shows us the level of disparity that these people experienced as they helplessly watched the disease take over their community. As one of the interviewees fights to hold back tears while describing in detail how he lost his past partners, we can tell that these tears have been shed before and with greater intensity and magnitude. It’s almost impossible to really understand the feeling of loss that these San Franciscans experienced, as most of us today don’t lose our loved ones as frequently as they did, but this documentary allows us to gain a deeper knowledge of that magnitude of loss and understand just how gravely this disease impacted an already outcasted and discriminated community.
Philadelphia is the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the social stigma of AIDS and it’s connection with homophobia. Centered around a lawsuit dealing with HIV/AIDS discrimination in the workplace, the main character played by Tom Hanks deals with the many bureaucratic loopholes that allow employers to legally discriminate workers based on HIV status. His lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, must overcome his own preconceived assumptions of HIV/AIDS in order to fully represent his client.
I want to end by acknowledging the fact that most of these films predominantly feature white gay males as the main subjects. This is not a full reflection of the AIDS epidemic in terms of the total affected and the activism of the 1980s, as the disease was and is a worldwide problem. It took the collective efforts of everyone, including women and the straight community, in order to the fight the problem. However, most of popular media, especially film, talk about AIDS only in respect to the gay community since it was one of the groups most affected by the disease and stigma. Furthermore, the AIDS epidemic’s connection to the gay civil rights movement of the 1980s may also contribute to its ties in today’s media. These stories are central and crucial to understanding the AIDS epidemic, but are not the only stories to be told. Nevertheless, these are still important movies to watch and learn from, but also to remember those who suffered from this tragic era so that we may never let this happen again.