Hollywood is notorious for its misrepresentation and exaggeration of people and situations. Fortunately, not all films are like this, and serve as real representations of real issues that real people are facing. The HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s and plagued an entire demographic of people through infection and stigma. Here are eight of the best films you can watch about HIV/AIDS.
“Milk” is a biographical film based on the gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) — the first openly gay man to be elected into major public office in the US.
His victory was not just a victory for gay rights; he forged coalitions across the political spectrum. He seeks equal rights and opportunities for all, and his great love for the city and its people brings him backing from young and old, straight and gay, alike – at a time when prejudice and violence against gays was openly accepted as the norm.
“An Early Frost”
A successful lawyer, Michael Pierson (Aiden Quinn), is gay and hasn’t told his family about his sexuality yet. When Michael discovers he is dying, he must come out to his parents not only as gay but also as having AIDS.
This 1985 made-for-TV film is a straight-forward and unforgiving depiction of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. This brought the issue of HIV/AIDS into the homes, showing an all-American family struggling to overcome the heartbreak of AIDS. Quinn’s character is also portrayed as a masculine man, breaking many of the stereotypes at the time.
“The Normal Heart”
This 2014 drama tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a New York-based writer, in the 1980s. He and his friends join forces to expose the truth about the severity of HIV/AIDS crisis when both the government and society are ignoring the epidemic.
“I belong to a culture that includes Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Alexander the Great, so many popes and cardinals you wouldn't believe,” said Ruffalo’s character. “Mr. Green Beret, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who's responsible for winning World War II? His name's Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans' Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so hounded for being gay. Why didn't they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II! If they did, maybe he wouldn't have killed himself and you wouldn't be so terrified of who you are. That's how I want to be remembered. As one of the men who won the war.”
His character takes a closer look at the nation’s sexual politics as gays and doctors fight to uncover what became the largest public health crisis in history.
“Angels in America”
Ok, this isn’t exactly a movie. It’s a miniseries but still worth the watch.
This HBO miniseries is adapted from Tony Kushner’s award-winning plays about social, sexual, religious, and other issues in the 1980s in America as the AIDS epidemic became a public health crisis.
The miniseries revolves around six New Yorkers whose lives all intersect. One of the main characters, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), is a gay man living with AIDS who is visited by an angel. The film explores Reagan-era politics, the rapid spread of AIDS, and the changing social and political climate toward gays.
“Dallas Buyers Club”
This 2013 biographical film tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an AIDS patient in the mid-1980s when treatments were far under-researched. The disease was misunderstood and highly stigmatized at the time. As part of the experimental AIDS treatment movement, McConaughey’s character smuggles unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas to treat symptoms and distribute the drugs to his friends who were also infected. This established the “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“The Lazarus Effect”
This 30-minute film illustrates the impact of HIV/AIDS and the effect of life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicine through the stories of infected people in Zambia. HIV/AIDS has killed millions of people, with the highest number of deaths in Africa.
This film shows that there is hope for those living with the disease, and not just for people living in developed countries.
“How to Survive a Plague”
This film is a 2012 documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the efforts made by ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) to fight the disease.
Faced with their own mortality an improbable group of young people, many of them HIV-positive young men, broke the mold by taking on Washington and the medical establishment. Despite having no scientific training, these activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry to assist in the creation of drugs that would help treat symptoms.
This 1993 blockbuster was the first major film to deal with the issues of HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia. Its all-star cast includes Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas. Hanks plays a lawyer who is discriminated against by his firm. Washington, another lawyer, at first refuses to help him make his case but eventually comes to realize his own ignorance about how HIV/AIDS is contracted. Hanks eventually wins the case against his firm, only to die soon after. The film was inspired by the real life attorneys Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence B. Cain. Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance.
Many of these films were conceived by journalists and individuals who experienced the worst of the epidemic first-hand, so the representations are minimally “Hollywood.” These films will leave you with a real interpretation — and one that hopefully inspires you to take action.