Since HIV was discovered in 1984, a magical twister hasn’t blown us all away. No farmhouses have fallen onto ruby-soled witches. And no one has mastered the art of traveling by bubble. But in the realm of the HIV epidemic, we are certainly not in Kansas anymore. We’ve reached the colorful land of Oz. Long gone are the stormy days of gray and gloom. We’ve seen extraordinary advances in modern medicine that have allowed for those living with HIV to live full, healthy, and happy lives.
But in 2013, you wouldn’t know this by looking through the Hollywood lens, where topics and stories have played a pivotal role in the progression of gay culture. As Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese once said, “Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.”
Hollywood has, since the invention of celluloid, played an important role in the advancement of our society and people’s ways of thinking. Often films allow us to open our minds and learn new things we may not have once understood or felt comfortable with. They allow us to take that first step down the road of yellow brick. Successful films like Brokeback Mountain or Milk offered the everyday American, who may not have known someone who was gay, a chance to witness the life of an LGBT person and possibly gain a new level of comfort around the subject that would eventually lead to their support for marriage equality.
But when I look back at the short and recent history of films that include HIV and/or AIDS (fact: it’s always both) in their plot, I find it impossible to think of a single one that has challenged our way of thinking or pushed our culture forward by bringing light to scenarios or situations that were true to today’s way of living for those with HIV. One that reflects the idea that having HIV is now manageable, and daily treatment with today’s medications can, and most likely will, reduce your viral load, significantly increasing the quality and length of your life.
The portrayals we’ve seen, while they may have been award-worthy, still pulled us further away from our goal of reducing stigma. They may have even perpetuated it. In the 1990s we were riveted by Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a man living with AIDS and his struggle for justice in Philadelphia and gut-wrenched by the reckless behavior of a group of young friends in Kids.
More recently we felt distraught when Precious received her diagnosis after being raped by her father, and we even breathed a sigh of relief to learn that Jim Carrey’s character was only pretending to have AIDS in I Love You Phillip Morris. So with these constant reminders of death and sorrow, why are we surprised so many people fear a simple HIV test? Perhaps it’s that no one wants to end up like Ed Harris’s character in The Hours or go through what the character Judith did in Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
Even now, 32 years after the discovery of AIDS, the incredible documentary How to Survive a Plague received an Oscar nomination for its powerful story about AIDS activists and their struggle to get the government’s attention. Later this year we’ll see Dallas Buyers Club, set in 1986, which depicts a man’s struggle for medications after he receives an AIDS diagnosis with only 30 days to live. Next year The Normal Heart debuts on HBO and will surely require a tissue as we watch an activist attempt to raise HIV/AIDS awareness during the early 1980s.
So now I raise the important question: Where are the films that show what it’s like to have HIV in 2013? That millions of lives have been restored thanks to the scientific advancements made in treatment?