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“A plague that was allowed to happen”: Confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic through TV and cinema

ByMolly Turley

Feb 9, 2021

Almost thirty years ago, on the 3rd of July, 1981 Lawrence K. Altman published an article in The New York Times that would come to be known as the “gay cancer” story. This was one of the first mentions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in mainstream society, and it would undoubtedly become paramount in perpetuating harmful stigmas surrounding it, unleashing a wave of fear and hatred upon minority groups merely trying to survive. But while the rest of the world stayed silent, TV and cinema have consistently worked to bring awareness to the HIV virus. The way in which creators have addressed HIV and AIDs has changed, yet there is still one common goal in mind: to provide a sorely-needed voice to a silenced and suffering community.

In the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, media attention was devastatingly lacking – more than 5000 people had died from AIDS-related complications by 1985 in the United States alone before the first film Buddies addressed the epidemic. Directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr., the film offers a poignant rendition of a man dealing with the heightened awareness of his own mortality, eternalising the tragedy of his shortened life with underlying political resentment. Perhaps more notably, An Early Frost was broadcast on television in November of 1985. Surrounded by fear and near-hysteria, the film’s release educated the public on crucial misinformation and provides a heart-breaking depiction of the treatment of HIV positive people at the time. It is clear from these first few dramas and films then, that contemporary TV and cinema came from a place of desperation – not just desperation to be seen in wider society, but also to educate the general public in a time where fear-mongering advertisements became the norm.

Although Hollywood was slow to react to the increasing attention to HIV/AIDS, they eventually acknowledged the epidemic with the release of Philadelphia. The film offers a glossy, rose-tinted version of the experience of millions. Philadelphia neglects its gay characters, instead electing to focus on “justice” being served. This is a recurring theme across television and cinema focusing on the HIV/AIDS crisis produced in Hollywood – although it was much later, the HBO miniseries of Angels in America also generally lacks the tragedy of the text it is based on. Equally, films like Dallas Buyers’ Club and Rent tend to emphasise oppositions surrounding the ‘us vs. them’ trope, rather than paying attention to giving voices to the marginalised community as their predecessors had done.

So where are we now? In the modern day, attitudes towards the HIV/AIDS epidemic have altered massively. Due to culture shifts like the New Queer Cinema movement, TV and cinema were able to reject heteronormative constraints and put gay people at the heart of their own stories. This is shown especially through the work of Greg Araki and documentaries like How to Survive a Plague or Paris Is Burning. Films such as 120 BPM have managed to give honest portrayals of homosexuality and AIDS activism, whilst simultaneously conveying the heartrending impact of the epidemic shortening young people’s lives. Most recently, the release of Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin has been critically acclaimed for its touching and tragic portrayal of how HIV tore through a suppressed community. Current depictions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in television and cinema serve as a poignant reminder of the struggles that have already been faced by so many, and, timed with the COVID-19 pandemic, have impacted more people than ever before.

Power undoubtedly lies in representation. Creating a distinct space through TV and cinema to voice the underrepresented communities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic have been prominent in shaking off years of fear and hatred due to misinformation and outdated stigmas, and this has most notably been done through the efforts of the community themselves. When no one cared to listen, LGBTQ+ creators used their unapologetic queerness to turn fear into power. They refused to be forgotten in a world that didn’t care to remember them. They made sure they wouldn’t be erased. As we tell their stories, we give life to them once more.

Image: Flickr