by David Waggoner
Films have played a large part in the history of AIDS—from the seminal Longtime Companion (1989) to Philadelphia (1993) to this year’s Oscar favorite, Dallas Buyers Club (released in 2013), Hollywood has made movie magic out of an oftentimes ignored and even silent epidemic. Certainly famous film directors have played an important part in the evolution of this magazine—Mike Nichols, Ismail Merchant, and Peter Hall are just a few who have spoken to A&U about their personal relationship to the AIDS pandemic. And dozens of film actors from the A-list have graced our cover as well (Elizabeth Taylor, Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Ann Magnuson, Rita Moreno, and Queen Latifah are some of my favorite A&U interviews).
As you can tell, the movies are in our blood. But when a movie’s stars seem to overlook the obviously right moment to connect to the audience about a disease that has killed nearly a million Americans, then it’s time to become a film critic rather than just a fan/editor. In their acceptance speeches at the 71st Golden Globe Awards last month, both stars of Dallas Buyers Club—Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto—failed to mention the disease (or those living with it) that inspired their well-awarded performances. Maybe it was assumed all Americans know what a buyers club is. (I doubt it.) Or that AIDS doesn’t need to be brought up in the first place because Hollywood is, after all, a community of actors who have already lost so many colleagues to AIDS. But that’s not my point in discussing the omission of the words “AIDS” or “HIV” in front of a global audience of millions.
Granted we don’t expect our actors to discuss the plot lines of the movies they win for. But we do hope that the subject matter of a film so important to the HIV community might elicit a few words of support for those still fighting for their lives. If you were a director wouldn’t you mention the Vietnam War if you had just won for Platoon? (Oliver Stone did.) Wouldn’t you mention the fight against terrorism if you had just won for Zero Dark Thirty? (Jessica Chastain did.) It just goes to underscore how “AIDS” today is being written out of the script of our lives.
But it wasn’t always so. In his acceptance speech for Philadelphia, Denzel Washington wasn’t afraid of the word. How come McConaughey or Leto are so disconnected from their roles that it didn’t dawn on them to talk about it at the podium?
That’s why it pleases me that Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the L.A.-based Black AIDS Institute, is gracing our cover this month—as a longtime activist, he has been a steadfast voice in our national, and now global, dialogue about HIV/AIDS. Wilson has led the charge in bringing attention to how AIDS impacts Black communities. Importantly, the Institute isn’t interested in being the single voice; through such initiatives as the Black Treatment Advocates Network, the organization actively nurtures advocates who can communicate the importance of testing and treatment to the people with whom they engage.
This aim is shared by campaigns such as HIV Equal, featured in this issue. HIV Equal seeks to destigmatize disclosure by reminding us that we all have a serostatus and that we are all more than our serostatuses. Artist Carmine Santaniello, featured in this month’s Gallery, is helping to get the word out about prevention as a participant in Visual AIDS’ Play Smart series of HIV-basics trading cards. Also featured is an interview with Khafre Kujichagulia Abif, an advocate who has edited a new 600-page anthology of poems, essays, and affirmations—I hope these hundreds of voices will inspire thousands of readers to raise awareness.
There is still hope for McConaughey and Leto. Both of them are nominated for the highest honor of entertainment awards—the Oscar. If they get another chance to talk about a disease that still afflicts tens of millions around the globe, I simply ask of them to give a shout out to those living with the virus as well as to their families, loved ones, and even those who haven’t spoken the word “AIDS” lately. It would help amplify the struggles and triumphs of living with HIV/AIDS that we and others experience “off-screen,” away from the klieg lights.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U.