Ordinary People

Ordinary People
Is It Time to Stop Honoring “AIDS Movies” with Awards?
by Chael Needle

Matthew McConaughey  as Ron Woodroof in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Photo by Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Photo by Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

For their consideration, I am respectfully asking that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ignore Dallas Buyers Club this season [Editor’s note: This essay was written before Dallas garnered its Oscar noms]. Yes—ignore. Sure, Oscar nominations alone would bring much-needed attention to the history of the pandemic and to the needs of those living with HIV/AIDS in the here and now, especially in a day and age when the media covers AIDS by the numbers more than by the people. And the film itself—namely Matthew McConaughy and Jared Leto’s acting performances—deserves attention. It’s a rich text, complex enough to garner both critique and praise.

But Oscar envelopes also have a strange ability to seal up issues even in the moment they are trying to bring them to light. The film industry arguably does the same, and viewers, too. The lives of those living with HIV/AIDS are so infrequently represented on-screen that, when it happens, it becomes an “event”—art that announces to the world that it is serious, meaningful, a once-in-a-blue-moon triumph of cinema and commerce. On-screen AIDS is catalogued alongside civil rights and prejudice, working-class heroics, and history lessons.

Scarcity breeds an overabundance of enthusiasm. Like a kid whose absentee father brings home expensive gifts, we can hardly resist going into an apoplexy of excitement when we see our lives on the big screen treated with high production values, thoughtful acting, and earnest direction. We’re sold on the extraordinary seriousness of it all.

But what about ordinary seriousness? Or, even better, a treatment of the lives of individuals living with HIV/AIDS as just plain ordinary?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ask, “Do you remember that movie we saw last year? You know, the one where that woman was living with HIV?”—and hear in response: “Which one?” How would support for those living with HIV/AIDS change if there were a bunch of HIV-positive characters instead of one? Would the general public start to care about our lives instead of continuing to categorize our bodies?

Wouldn’t it be even better to be able to ask, “Do you remember that movie we saw last year, where that woman living with HIV battled those robots in the Pacific Ocean (or, almost never came back from her spacewalk; or, held her own in the Hunger Games)?” Then, perhaps, in the future, someone would respond, “She was living with HIV, but why do you have to point that out? Just say ‘individual.’”

But that would mean audiences would have accepted living with HIV as part of life, rather than a prompt for the bittersweet heroics of Dallas Buyers Club, or Precious, or The Hours, or Yesterday, or Philadelphia, or Longtime Companion. That would mean those living with HIV/AIDS would no longer fear the stigmatizing gaze of others or bear the weight of the laws that criminalize their bodies. That would mean we talked about HIV/AIDS—not on simple or dismissive terms, but on ones that addressed our complex differences and complex similarities across our serostatuses. That would mean screening had become routine; adherence to HIV meds would be an answer more often than a question; healthcare would be something we accessed rather than argued over and advocated for.

That would mean the realities of living with HIV or AIDS would have become so normalized that they could be woven inextricably into the fabric of screen characters. AIDS wouldn’t be a plot point that shocked or awed. AIDS wouldn’t be saturated with symbolism. And people living with HIV/AIDS wouldn’t need a movie to tell others that they’re alive; movies could get back to telling us something about living. The basic fact of someone’s HIV serostatus would be a non-event.

Instead of mining living with HIV/AIDS for dramatic punch, or, worse yet, a punchline, isn’t it time for filmmakers and audiences to demand more “ordinary people” in ordinary movies?

I don’t think my plea will be successful. Already buoyed by awards-season buzz, and racking up acting and other nominations, Dallas Buyers Club will walk the red carpet and perhaps even walk to a podium, or two, or three. It’s already won awards; it’s bound to win more. The Oscars will embrace the film. I wish it well and I hope minds are changed. But I also wish the change we need in the fight against AIDS was forged through random acts of normalcy and didn’t depend on tuxedos and gowns, or a golden statuette.

Chael Needle interviewed singer and actor Levi Kreis for the December 2013 issue.