Skip to Content

What Have The Movies Taught Us About AIDS?

What Have The Movies Taught Us About AIDS?

The answer ranges from “not a lot” to “not the right things,” depending on how closely you observe. In the generation (30 years) since HIV/AIDS became a maligned social epidemic, only two American studio films, Philadelphia and now Dallas Buyers Club, have addressed the disease forthrightly. Other films have touched on it, of course. Larry Clark’s Kids and the musical adaptation Rent looked frankly at the decimation the disease caused in the specific enclaves those films depicted, though the production models of both films — small indie and theatrical adaptation, respectively — render them moot to this conversation.

Hollywood’s vision of AIDS is one where educated, white, and gay men become sick and where an altruistic, or entrepreneurial, straight man can swoop in and save the day if they so desire. Crass, potentially reductive, but also clearly shown. These things can and have all been true, but they shouldn’t be misconstrued as typical. And while two films don’t justify a trend, certainly not when two decades removed, there are similarities between the ways AIDS is treated in Philadelphia and how it rears its head in Dallas Buyers Club.


It neglects to account for the fact that most of the newly infected are heterosexual, or African American women, or drug users. Most of the misleading elements and factual misrepresentation arises as a result of this paucity, which can be attributed to a number of factors: The tonal seriousness is obviously an issue, but it’s primarily that the disease’s most at-risk populations–gay men, Latinos, and African American women–are exceedingly rare as protagonists.  Hollywood’s propensity to whitewash may negate the potential for accuracy, at least for now. In statistical terms, this might not be causation, but it’s a significant correlation.

After the whirlwind of award-winning surrounding Silence of the Lambs quieted, the scant criticism of the film’s transphobic portrayal of serial killer Buffalo Bill became a talking point, mostly among critics, carrying over into the dialogue surrounding Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s AIDS apologia. Many viewed the film as a well-intentioned bid to make good with the gay community (a sad but common homogenization of queer people), but Tom Hanks’s afflicted Andrew Beckett is a peculiarly asexual supporting character in a film more about Denzel Washington’s homophobic Joe Miller, a lawyer who, literally, through the film’s banal courtroom drama, saves not only Andrew but the entire AIDS-afflicted community and possibly the world; world-saving data still forthcoming.

While the interrogation of the film’s real protagonist, bigotry and socialized stigma, may function as a groundbreaking conciliation, Philadelphia’s appeasement of heteronormative guilt is the greatest benefactor.  Not only is Washington’s character unjudged for his views, but his lawyerly obligations are overly heroized, as if one good deed compensates for a decade’s worth of willful ignorance.  If Demme intended for some sort of bridge-building, his depiction of the gay male community as a neutered victim isn’t doing him any favors. Rapturous Maria Callas monologue notwithstanding, Hanks’s character is more of an obligatory footnote than the leading player, a deficit which speaks more about the misguided but admirable scope of Demme’s project than the harsh realities that inspired it.

In Dallas Buyers Club, we meet Matthew McConaughey’s already gaunt, bull-riding Ron Woodruff in the middle of a public threesome with two women, his first dialogue shortly thereafter calling someone a cocksucker. This introduction is important not merely to characterize him as a homophobic straight man, which he is, but to foreshadow the type of technique director Jean-Marc Vallée interminably employs as a mechanism to elicit sympathy from the audience. Ron’s reckless lifestyle of boozing, drugs, and casual, unprotected sex has exposed him to HIV, which in a way is already some ideological progress: whereas in Philadelphia, the only identifiable trait portending AIDS susceptibility is homosexuality or public indecency, at least here, the disease’s non-discriminatory nature is shown from the onset.


Out of necessity and entrepreneurial zest, Woodruff creates the title club, a service wherein those infected can “buy in” to get lifesaving medicines not yet approved by the FDA. He provides a much-needed service, but in doing so is slumming with a subordinate class. Vallée reiterates this by highlighting Ron’s heterosexuality at every turn, often when it’s wildly superfluous, as if to suggest that it’s somehow rarer and worse that the disease struck someone like this.

What the film gets right is its demonization of the pharmaceutical industry, the profiteering heads of which not only languidly reacted to a public health crisis because of its affected community, but who, when they did respond, created the most expensive medicine in history. The subsequent unaffordability of AZT, the only then-approved treatment protocol, led people to buyers clubs as a last but not entirely unsuccessful resort.

The films share failings, even though the latter shows some progress. The immunodeficient lead in each is a Caucasian male, unrepresentative of the populations most at risk. In Club, he is heterosexual, a not-unimportant detail that helps deghettoize the disease. Most problematic, though, is the portrayal of the gay community as a disempowered victim, one that passively relied upon an empathic heterosexual majority as its savior. The initially stricken and thereafter associated group went to great lengths to lobby, publicize, and advocate policy changes when the government barely refused to acknowledge its existence (Reagan first mentioned AIDS in 1985, 4 years after its discovery). As depicted in David France’s seminal documentary How To Survive a Plague, this beaten-down group showed Rocky-like resilience.

Herein lays the biggest gaffe, which has nothing to do with either film: cinema’s conspicuous discursive absence surrounding HIV/AIDS cheapens the thoughtful messages contained in Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club. Imagine a world in which a person reads Eichmann in Jerusalem without having known anything about the Holocaust. There’s a lot of information contained therein, but without any sort of primer, there’s only so much to glean. The effort serves as abstraction rather than foundation.  The cart-before-the-horse phenomena is to blame, with these films acting as one-shot concessions when the tragedies that came before them feel like some distant other. Where is the film about 1986’s West Village, ACT UP, or Larry Kramer and the inception of Gay Men’s Health Crisis? Where is the film about the down-low, prison recidivism, and black single mothers? You can’t entirely bypass the grieving process and start with healing. Hollywood needs to provide some context if it wants to facilitate cultural atonement.

— John Oursler