Endgame: AIDS in Black America

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Angela Leroux-Lindsey Talks to Director Renata Simone About Her Film, Endgame: AIDS in Black America

Director Renata Simone and Magic Johnson. Photo Courtesy Renata Simone Productions
This month, the United States will host the International AIDS Conference for the first time since 1990—a fitting acknowledgement to the fact that President Obama, as one of his first acts in office, lifted the ban that prevented travelers with HIV from entering the country. Three decades into an epidemic that has arguably affected everyone on this planet, HIV/AIDS still faces stigma, and despite efforts by Obama and other prominent activists to engage in productive dialogues, the message that HIV is a preventable disease is often muddled by inaccurate stereotypes and social misconceptions. Alarmingly, while new infection rates in other hard-hit countries have dropped, numbers in the U.S. stay the same: More than 150 people contract HIV every day. Even more alarming is the fact that half of them are black; among youths, the number increases to seventy percent. In Washington, D.C., somewhere between five and eight percent of the population is HIV-positive, a staggering number that rivals infection rates in Africa. The dichotomy is worrisome: Our capital, which houses some of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world, including our first black President, is failing to stop the spread of HIV among the nation’s black citizens. In fact, black Americans are suffering disproportionately all across the country. But why?

The superb new documentary Endgame: AIDS in Black America, a FRONTLINE documentary, which will air on July 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS, investigates why HIV has affected the black community so deeply. Shot all across the country, this film reveals complicated truths about the underlying social and political structures that have enabled HIV to take hold in black communities. Interviews with activists, pastors, doctors, and educators provide nuanced perspectives about the history of AIDS in black America, and personal profiles of people living with the disease allow viewers to connect with the human beings who are affected. Written, directed, and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Renata Simone, this documentary is a powerful reminder that empathy and understanding are vital elements of social change, and that we have not yet reached a post-racial America. I had the privilege of speaking with Renata.

Angela Leroux-Lindsey: As Washington prepares to host the International AIDS Conference, a lot of focus is on how the government plans to combat the epidemic in the U.S. How has the Obama White House responded to the crisis so far?
Renata Simone:
It’s crucial that Obama lifted the ban [on HIV-positive visitors], and he also lifted the ban on federal money for syringe exchange programs. These are two tremendous things he did. Obama has also shifted some funding to prevention, [which is] significant. Beyond that, it’s things like having the Office of National AIDS Policy be in the White House. That says that this is important, that it’s not just the budget, it’s the bully pulpit. When the President says the word “AIDS” and takes pictures with the adviser of the Office of National AIDS Policy, that all trickles down. Obama being black has a huge effect. Black America is very skeptical about the source of the virus, so for a black President to institutionalize the office means it’s an official problem.

In this documentary, you interview Magic Johnson, who has been HIV-positive for twenty years. By adhering to a regimen of ARVs, he is representative of the astounding advances in medical treatment—but treatment is only one side of the coin. How important is it to emphasize prevention?
I can’t overstate the importance of prevention. HIV is preventable. HIV transmission comes down to that one moment when you say “no, not without a condom.” There are so many people working so hard to negotiate that moment of risk, and we really need to think one person at a time. Attitudes are contagious. We model behavior for each other, we do these things not because we’re self-destructive, but because we don’t know we have choices to do otherwise. That’s a purpose of the film: to share positive role models, to show we do have choices, you are not trapped, you are not alone.

In the film, Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, says “If black America were a country, it would have the sixteenth highest infection rate in the world.” Should we be reluctant to classify current numbers in terms of race alone, or is this necessary in order to effectively combat the crisis?
We need to quantify it in order to understand and then attack. There was a great deal of talk in the eighties about normalizing: normalize HIV, let’s not talk in terms of risk groups, which is stigmatizing. But that led to a diffuse message that was aimed at everyone and no one, and it got out of hand. We learned the hard way. Now, let’s figure out how to communicate with young black kids. Let’s speak directly to people who are in the path of the virus and help them make decisions to keep themselves safe. The things that make people vulnerable are so basic: self-esteem, the sense that “I am worth protecting.”

The people we meet [during the making of this film] are so truly inspiring. Understanding is the key. If we can use the medium of film to help people have a firsthand experience [of an HIV+ person], then the next time a piece of information comes along, they can relate. All of these things fit into the big picture of how to raise an AIDS-free generation.

Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.

Endgame premieres on FRONTLINE on PBS on July 10 at 9 p.m. Check local listings.

July 2012