Thanks to antiretroviral medications, preventative measures like PrEP and other advances, we’ve made tremendous strides in the war on HIV. But at the same time we can’t forget the darkest days of the epidemic, when young men were dying every day as society — and Hollywood — turned away.
Things have changed somewhat, at least in the film industry. A new crop of films touch on HIV, both directly and indirectly, as in the recently released Bohemian Rhapsody and the upcoming biopic Mapplethorpe.
In 1985, a touching drama currently on the film festival circuit, Gotham star Cory Michael Smith plays a closeted gay man who returns home to to Texas to tell his parents, played by Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen, that he’s HIV-positive and dying. (Hornet actually interviewed the film’s director, Yen Tan, following his release of 1985 as a short film.)
But how do these more recent releases stack up against what’s come before? In honor of World HIV Day, celebrated each year on December 1, we’ve compiled a list of films that helped to chronicle various aspects of the epidemic, as well as its staggering losses and brave triumphs.
1. Parting Glances (1986)
Before writer-director Bill Sherwood succumbed to HIV in 1990, he was one of the first to bring the HIV epidemic to the big screen with his lone feature film. In Parting Glances, over the course of 24 hours we follow gay couple Robert and Michael at a farewell party before Michael heads to a work assignment in Africa. But the film’s breakout star is Nick (Steve Buscemi), Robert’s acerbic ex. HIV-positive and dying, Nick keeps his sense of humor — and sense of self — without resorting to pathos.
2. Longtime Companion (1989)
Taking its name from the euphemism The New York Times used in gay men’s obituaries, Longtime Companion faced the AIDS crisis head on, chronicling a decade in the life of gay friends impacted by the epidemic. (The film earned Bruce Davison an Oscar nomination four years before Tom Hanks took home the gold for Philadelphia.) Sadly, director Norman René was another casualty of the epidemic, passing away in 1996.
3. Tongues Untied (1989)
Marlon Riggs’ semi-documentary is still one of the few films to address the epidemic from a Black perspective — and acknowledge the intersectional discrimination faced by queer men of color. Less a traditional narrative than a visual poem, it recounts Riggs’ sexual awakening and the toll HIV and AIDS has taken on his community, interspersed with footage of Black gay culture. Angry, erotic and unfiltered, Tongues Untied earned the ire of arch-conservative Pat Buchanan, who bemoaned the government funding that was used to create what he considered “pornographic art.”
4. The Living End (1992)
In Gregg Araki’s unapologetically un-P.C. road movie, two HIV-positive men go on the run after accidentally killing a cop. Like a poz version of Thelma & Louise, The Living End refuses to frame its leads as victims. Araki — who’d go on to direct Nowhere and Mysterious Skin — infuses the film with absurdist humor, anger and, yes, plenty of sex appeal.
5. Philadelphia (1993)
Though it hasn’t aged incredibly well, Philadelphia was the first big studio film to focus on HIV and the discrimination faced by those who are positive. Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a smart young lawyer who suspects he was fired because he’s HIV-positive. When he decides to sue his firm, though, his only hope is an attorney (Denzel Washington) struggling with his own homophobic baggage.
6. Jeffrey (1995)
While “AIDS panic” was still rampant in the mid-’90s, screenwriter Paul Rudnick used humor to remind us that life — and love — goes on, even in the shadow of death. Wings star Steven Weber plays Jeffrey, a handsome but neurotic New Yorker who’s scared to act on his attraction to the HIV-positive hunk (Michael T. Weiss) he met at the gym. The film also benefits from an A-list supporting cast, including Nathan Lane, Sigourney Weaver, Christine Baranski and, most memorably, Patrick Stewart as Sterling, Jeffrey’s savagely sassy interior decorator friend.
7. Zero Patience (1993)
The same year Philadelphia came to theaters, this Canadian movie musical wryly explored the popular (though now disproved) legend that a single man, flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, was responsible for bringing HIV to the West. In contrast to Jonathan Demme’s heart-tugging tearjerker, director John Greyson gives us a sassy revue with showtunes, choreography, gay ghosts and even a duet between two buttholes. Singin’ in the Rain it’s not.
8. It’s My Party (1996)
Art imitates life in this drama about dying with dignity from director Randal Kleiser (Grease). Kleiser’s real-life ex held a farewell party before taking his life rather than succumbing to HIV. In Party, Eric Roberts plays an architect who decides to end his life before an AIDS-related infection robs him of his mind. Olivia Newton-John, Margaret Cho and Marlee Matlin all costar, with Gregory Harrison playing Roberts’ estranged boyfriend.
9. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Too often HIV narratives focus on victimization, but director Jean-Marc Vallée presents HIV-positive mechanic Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) as, if not a hero, at least a man of action. Refusing to simply give in, Woodruff launches a smuggling network to get HIV meds from Mexico. Though the film isn’t without its detractors, Dallas Buyers Club earned Academy Awards for both McConaughey and Jared Leto, who a played trans sex worker in the film.
10. The Normal Heart (2014)
The long journey to bring Larry Kramer’s seminal play to the screen finally paid off when Ryan Murphy adapted the drama for HBO back in 2014. Mark Ruffalo stars as Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks, who rails against the government, pharmaceutical companies, his brother — even the activist organization he started — all while desperately trying to hold on to the love he’s found with a closeted New York Times reporter (Matt Bomer) dying with the virus. A real heartbreaker.
11. The Companion (2015)
In the 1980s, Cuba’s government imprisoned HIV-positive people in sanitariums, allowing them out only once per week, accompanied by a “companion.” In Pavel Giroud’s compelling drama, a disgraced ex-boxer (Yotuel Romero) is assigned to chaperone a troublesome patient (Armando Miguel Gomez), but the two forge an unusual bond. Cuba’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars, The Companion presents characters who are all the more realistic for their flaws.
12. BPM (2017)
Director Robin Campillo drew on his experiences as an early member of ACT UP Paris to give us an up-close-and-personal view of French AIDS activists in the 1990s — their street actions, confrontations with police and organizational infighting. Against this compelling backdrop, two young activists — HIV-negative newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and jaded HIV-positive veteran Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) — explore their growing attraction.