Let’s face it: films about HIV are typically depressing AF, and understandably so.
Most were made during the height of the epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Even now, with new advances in treatment and prevention, over 6,700 Americans and 1 million global citizens living with HIV die of HIV-related illnesses each year. But instead of letting the doom and gloom overtake us, we’ve decided to highlight five films about HIV that handle the epidemic with humor and depth, celebrating life when you’re a gay, HIV-positive man.
Here are five films about HIV that are surprisingly funny yet deep:
1. Parting Glances (1986)
One of the first-ever films to star Steve Buscemi, Parting Glances focuses on the last night before Robert, one-half a New York City gay couple, leaves for a two-year work trip in Africa. His boyfriend, Michael, resents his leaving because he suspects he doesn’t want to be around to see their HIV-positive friend Nick (Buscemi) become ill. But before Robert goes, his friends throw him a party, and Nick crashes it.
Nick is hilarious and cool, not only because he’s a video artist who refuses to feel sorry for himself but also because he’s unapologetically sexual and refuses to give into the usual gay expectations of bar drinking, gym bunnies and Fire Island boredom. His antics carry the comedic weight of this candid and sexy film without ever crumbling into outright sorrow or self-pity.
2. Tongues Untied (1989)
Half a collection of biographical spoken-word poems set to choreography and half a collection of documentary footage of black gay men voguing, protesting and hanging out in the ‘80s, Tongues Untied is unlike any film you’ve seen.
While the subtextual specter of HIV hovers over its vignettes (and is even directly addressed in a few scenes), it’s merely part of the film’s larger examination of black mirth, strength and brotherhood in defiance of American homophobia and racism. The unconventional presentation style is digestible in its 55-minute running time, and its subject matter is as timely as ever, which is both a good and bad thing.
3. The Living End (1992)
When Luke, a hunky HIV-positive male hustler, kills his would-be gay bashers, he ends up an outlaw on the run. He stumbles into the car of Jon, a comparatively mild-mannered and pessimistic film critic recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. Unwilling to go through the hassle of the American judicial system, the two men decide to become outlaw lovers in an adventure that’s been called “the gay Thelma and Louise.”
The film is breathlessly liberating as Luke and Jon unapologetically explore their lust for life, breaking away from conventions and the judgments of everyday society. But gay Japanese-American filmmaker Greg Araki doesn’t give his anti-heroes an easy out, especially as one has a certain suicidal fantasy involving an orgasm and a gun.
4. Zero Patience (1993)
Finally, a musical about HIV that isn’t Rent (not that we don’t love that musical, it just hasn’t aged well). Undoubtedly a product of its time, Zero Patience is a surprisingly deep musical comedy that explores the living memory (and morality) of how we remember people who’ve struggled with HIV. Despite its serious theme, it still manages to include a song that’s literally sung by two male anuses and another about bathhouse decorum (listen above).
In the farcical plot, real-life Victorian sexologist Sir Richard Burton finds himself curating an exhibit at a Canadian natural history museum on the legendary Patient Zero, the flight attendant erroneously blamed for the start of the HIV epidemic. Haunted by Patient Zero’s ghost, Burton finds himself entangled with local ACT UP activists who find his upcoming exhibit a dangerous waste of money.
While the songs and acting aren’t amazing, some of the tunes and scenes are definitely worth a watch.
5. Jeffrey (1995)
When gay playwright Paul Rudnick first published his 1993 play Jeffrey, theaters wouldn’t perform it because they were afraid of offending audiences with “a comedy about AIDS.” By 1994, though, it became a certified Off-Broadway hit, and by 1995 it became this film starring Patrick Stewart as a flamboyant interior decorator, Nathan Lane as a pervy priest and Sigourney Weaver and Christine Baranski in brief comedic roles.
While it leans on stereotypes that modern viewers might find old-hat, this still-funny film follows Jeffrey, an HIV-negative New Yorker who must decide whether to pursue a relationship with a hunky HIV-positive man named Steve. Jeffrey dreads the prospect of watching Steve suffer, but the film’s cast of comedic co-stars aren’t willing to let fear win out over love.