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Silence = Death: How cinema helped bring AIDS to public attention

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By Charlie Jordin

Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine the horrors of the AIDS pandemic. Peaking during the 80s, it was rarely discussed openly despite the staggering numbers of deaths. Disproportionately affecting the gay community, some saw it as a ‘punishment’ for homosexuality whilst others refused to acknowledge what was happening, ignoring the people dying around them. The pandemic struck during a time when being gay was not as socially acceptable; gay marriage wasn’t recognised and there was a sense that sexuality had to be hidden or repressed. 34 million people have died of AIDS so far.

While politicians were silent, art became a creative platform to discuss and express the emotional turmoil of having AIDS. Notable artists and photographers including Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz boldly explored their sexuality and mortality whilst raising awareness of the illness. Keith Haring’s famous AIDS posters gave visibility to those suffering in silence, relieving the oppression AIDS victims felt. The powerful words ‘Silence=Death’ were printed on one of his most famous posters, reflecting the helplessness AIDS victims felt and the urgency for recognition and help.

It wasn’t long before AIDS affected the world of cinema. Rock Hudson, a huge star in Hollywood who appeared with stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day, was diagnosed in 1984. His tragic death brought the illness to the public’s attention and a foundation was set up in his name raising almost two million dollars to fight AIDS. He was one of the first notable celebrities to die of AIDS. His death also led to criticism of Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, who were friends with Hudson.  Their refusal to help Hudson when he fell ill, their seeming fear of being associated with the disease and their apparent indifference to the AIDS pandemic was widely condemned, with many claiming they should have done much more to help the people dying in their country and used their huge platform to spread awareness.

With the government showing little support for AIDS victims, the world of cinema was tentative to bring AIDS to the big screen as it was such a contentious issue at the time and it was regarded as a career risk for actors, especially men, to play homosexual characters. The indie film Parting Glances was one of the first films to discuss AIDS and explore the realities of being gay in the Reagan era. The film was praised for its realistic depictions of gay characters and humanistic approach to AIDS. Parting Glances was director and writer Bill Sherwood’s first and last film as he sadly died of AIDS four years later.

One of the first major, big budget films to address AIDS, as well as homosexuality and homophobia, was Philadelphia. Starring esteemed actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, the film gained critical acclaim for the actors’ roles as law partner Andrew Beckett (Hanks) who contracts AIDS and personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) who decides to represent him in a case over AIDS discrimination. Miller represents the ignorant ‘everyman’, believing infection could be passed on through touch and showing little sympathy at the beginning of the film. However, as the film goes on, he witnesses the hostility towards Beckett and vows to win the case for him, reflecting the change in attitudes towards AIDS and homosexuality. The film was pivotal in marking a change in Hollywood’s representations of gay people and was one of the first films to have a main character with AIDS. One of the most pivotal scenes is the final scene, when the camera pans in on a television screen showing clips of Beckett as a child playing on a beach with his family. The scene reminds the audience, many of whom may have been unsympathetic or unaware of AIDS at the time, that all AIDS victims were once children without a care in the world. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal and in his emotional speech dedicated his win to a friend who had died of AIDS.

Many critics, however, argue that Philadelphia is a cold, emotionless representation of a homosexual relationship; scenes of Beckett and his boyfriend in bed were cut from the film and there are few romantic moments between the two. If the couple were heterosexual, there would undoubtedly be more intimate scenes to establish a deeper, more affectionate relationship. This implies that scenes of homosexuality are somehow offensive or controversial and should be removed to avoid making the audience uncomfortable. Whilst the film significantly amplified awareness of AIDS, there are issues with the timid representation of homosexuality, perhaps focusing on mass audience appeal over character depth.

Dallas Buyers Club is one of the most recent films to combat the issue of AIDS, focusing on the issue of health care and medication. Pills to treat AIDS were often very expensive and many could not afford the lifesaving drugs. The film is based on the real life account of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who smuggled medicine from Mexico and set up a buyers club where he supplied AIDS victims with the drugs. The film focuses on the huge stigma of AIDS and the lack of help and support there was for patients; Woodroof is ostracised by his family, loses all his friends and is fired from his job after being given 30 days to live. Similarly to Miller in Philadelphia, Woodroof at first appears homophobic but has his eyes opened and becomes a much more sympathetic and likeable character.

The film brings the issue of AIDS to a generation who may not have grown up with it, with McConaughey the first leading man to play an AIDS victim in 20 years, reflecting a reluctance to portray the disease on screen. There is no doubt that this is because the disease is associated with homosexuality and there are still issues of homophobia in Hollywood and in wider society – audiences may ‘accept’ homosexuality but would rather not see it. Like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club is far from a perfect exploration of the impact of AIDS. The real Woodroof was renowned to be bisexual but was written as a homophobic straight man. Many criticise the film for using the plight of homosexuals, who were more likely to suffer from AIDS, as a backdrop for the straight lead character.

While no film can do justice to the immense grief and heartbreak the AIDS pandemic has caused, it is still important to visually communicate these experiences through film to challenge and change the audience’s perceptions. Films such as Philadelphia, despite their shortcomings, helped significantly to spread awareness. 34 million people have died of HIV/AIDS. Yet even today there is still a significant stigma and ignorance around the illness and issues such as contraception are still controversial in many parts of the world. People are still dying of AIDS and there is still anger in the gay community over how the pandemic was handled. There is a sense of erasure, that the lives of those 34 million people have been forgotten. It is essential that we mourn the lives tragically lost to AIDS and celebrate the strength of the LGBT community and LGBT cinema.

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