Posted by Ryan Morgan on December 17, 2013 at 11:50 AM
By Kat Heavner
I know nothing of the medicine behind the treatment of HIV/AIDS, so I won't speak to the medical accuracy of Ron Woodruff's therapies. I won't condemn AZT. I won't advocate that we all boycott pharmaceuticals and begin a vitamin regimen. But I do think we need more movies like this one.
I was born late in the year that An Early Frost
played on TV. I knew that Magic Johnson was HIV-positive before I understood what HIV was. I came of age in a world where Jeanie Boulet was a beloved TV character, and Philadelphia
had already brought the world to tears, and Pedro Zamora was testifying before Congress. I obsessively played the RENT
soundtrack on my way home for breaks in college, but I became a sexual health peer educator well after we had gotten over the shock of AIDS, and tired of discussing its impacts on current infection rates. I fully believe in the good intentions of each of those media decisions, the power they held to reduce stigma and break down stereotypes. So many years later, how do we maintain a sense of urgency about prevention efforts?
I also grew up in a household that talked about HIV/AIDS with downcast eyes and hushed voices. One of my father's dear friends was diagnosed with the disease in the mid-80s, "When it was still a death sentence," he would say. While he was forthcoming in talking about the impacts that friend's death had on him, there was probably something more, something unspeakable bubbling beneath my father's grief when he spoke of that friend throughout my childhood. Unspeakable, and so we did not speak of it.
Maybe that's why, even carrying a 10-year history of involvement with sexual health education, I had no idea what I was walking into when I went to see Dallas Buyer's Club
at the Nickelodeon
last week. Movies depicting HIV-positive characters in the last thirty years have oscillated between everyone-dies horror, poor-pitiable-you dramas, and no-big-deal survival stories. I don't actually know if Dallas Buyer's Club
got it right, if Ron Woodruff's reaction when he wakes up in that hospital room, or his friends' treatment of him later, or his relationship with Rayon were accurate to the time. But I believe the film attempts to show a microcosm of what my father must have seen with his friend, and it isn't a simple reaction. There are unflinching, horrifying glimpses into what AIDS does to a body in the same moment that there are tender, sympathetic moments between friends. Bravery, in the face of ignorance and cruelty. Dedication to research on the tails of confusion.
My passion for sexual health education--my desire to see decreased HIV infection rates, in particular--is renewed by the gut-wrenching portrayal of the ravages of the disease. I do not think the disease is a badge of honor, nor a minor annoyance. Yet I do not pity any of these characters, and I am not repulsed by them. This is AIDS-film-for-Millennials done right
. Even if the medicine is wrong, if my mentors who lived through this time remember it differently, if it is melodramatic or condensed. This is the film we need. This is the conversation we need. One that is complicated and dirty and honest and gentle, all at once. One that forces us to call our fathers and say, "I'm sorry. I didn't know what it was like." One that encourages us to ask "What next?"
Kat Heavner is a social work student that cares about public policy. Kat volunteers at Tell Them and is a Macro Social Work Intern at Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter.