How Movies About the AIDS Crisis Changed the World

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In the early 1980s, a mysterious flu-like illness began to spread within gay populations on the U.S. west coast. That virus was HIV, and it quickly rose to epidemic status across the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 70 million people have contracted the virus since the beginning of the epidemic, and about half of that number have died.

As HIV and its more advanced form, AIDS, became a global threat, patients were frequently stigmatized, fired from jobs, and treated with contempt and fear. In the early days of the epidemic, an HIV diagnosis was essentially a death sentence, with many succumbing to the disease shortly after being diagnosed.

Fortunately, AIDS treatment has come a long way in the last 30 years, and much of the stigma surrounding the disease has been lifted. A better understanding about how AIDS is spread is one reason for this change, but Hollywood has also done its part to quell misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS. The first major film to bring attention to the AIDS crisis was 1993’s Philadelphia, which featured an Oscar-winning performance by Tom Hanks as AIDS patient Andrew Beckett.

Since the release of Philadelphia, filmmakers haven’t shied away from tackling the subject of AIDS, and these films have played a significant role in bringing attention to the worldwide epidemic.

AIDS Patients On Screen

Films featuring AIDS patients run the gamut from big-budget blockbusters such as Philadelphia and The Dallas Buyers Club to small indie films, including 1985, which was released in 2018. While widely different in subject matter, each film touches on the fear and uncertainty of an AIDS diagnosis, as well as the discrimination that typically accompanies the disease.

1985 is the story of 16-year-old Aidan, a young man living with AIDS in small-town Texas. The film, shot entirely in greyscale, is set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when few treatment options existed. Aidan must come to terms with a terminal illness, as well as deal with rampant homophobia within his small town.

Based on a true story, The Dallas Buyers Club is also set in Texas in 1985, but its main character, Ron Woodroof, is vastly different from Aidan. Rather than quietly accepting his fate, Woodroof is a fighter who seeks out treatment through any means necessary. After being excluded from trials of the world’s first effective AIDS treatment, zidovudine (AZT), Woodroof takes the rebel’s route and illegally obtains antiviral drugs in several other countries, including Mexico and Israel. He then goes a step further, distributing those antivirals to other AIDS patients.

Philadelphia addresses legal issues related to AIDS — specifically, Hanks’ character Beckett was fired from his job at a high-profile law firm following his diagnosis. Beckett then embarks on a legal battle, suing his former employer for wrongful termination. The film won two Oscars and is widely credited with helping change public perception and attitudes toward HIV and AIDS.

Vulnerable Populations

Although the AIDS virus can be contracted by people from all walks of life, gay males remain among the populations disproportionately affected by AIDS. In fact, gay and bisexual males made up 82% of all new diagnoses in 2015, reports Bradley University. This disparity may be due to several factors, especially poverty and the social stigma that still accompanies the disease. An estimated 23% of gay and bisexual American males live below the poverty line, which means those individuals typically lack access to quality healthcare. Many who have been diagnosed and live under the poverty line may qualify for Social Security Income benefits, but don’t know this could be an option due to lack of information and don’t pursue due to fear of stigmatization or discrimination when seeking benefits.

Early detection is vital to AIDS treatment, and gay and bisexual males living in poverty may not receive a diagnosis in a timely manner, leading to lower rates of survival. But the highest mortality rates can be found among African-American males, studies show. Of every 100,000 African-American men diagnosed with AIDS, 20 succumb to the virus. Comparatively, the mortality rate among white males is 2 in 100,000.

Despite these numbers, few films address the impact of AIDS within the black community. Philadelphia and 1985 feature gay white male protagonists, and The Dallas Buyers Club’s Woodroof is a straight white male who contracted the disease after having sex with an intravenous drug user. A notable exception is 2012’s PBS/Frontline documentary ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America, which explores the ways in which prejudice and fear led to high HIV rates among African-Americans.

Steps Towards the Elimination of AIDS
Cory Michael Smith as Adrian Lester

Symptoms of AIDS can be similar to flu symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, fever, and body aches. Yet many who contract the disease exhibit no symptoms, and asymptomatic individuals can cause the virus to spread more rapidly. An estimated 250,000 individuals in the U.S. are unknowingly living with HIV due to lack of symptoms. Yet, as previously mentioned, early detection is critical to treatment, as well to the possible eradication of AIDS worldwide.

In fact, early detection is part of the Trump Administration’s plan to reduce AIDS numbers, which was unveiled in early 2019. The plan calls for a 75% reduction in AIDS cases in the next five years, using a combination of early detection and treatment, along with preventative measures including the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a pill taken daily that can reduce the chances that a high-risk individual will contract AIDS. According to the CDC, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of infection by up to 92%.

If PrEP and antivirals had been widely available in 1985, perhaps Woodroof’s story would have been much different. As it stands, however, The Dallas Buyers Club remains a major player in Hollywood’s attempt to bring mainstream attention to the AIDS epidemic. From Philadelphia to 1985 and beyond, movies about the AIDS crisis have helped to reduce some of the social stigma surrounding the condition, and may be partially responsible for modern advancements in AIDS treatment.

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About Paul Devine

The founder of The People's Movies, started the site 20th November 2008.The site has excelled past all expectations with many only giving the site months and it's still going strong. A lover of French Thrillers, Post Apocalyptic films, Asian cinema. 2009 started Cinehouse to start his 'cinema education' learning their is life outside mainstream cinema. Outside of film, love to travel with Sorrento, Guangzhou and Manchester all favourite destinations.Musically loves David Bowie, Fishbone, Radiohead.

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