/ 1 December 2022

Ten must-watch movies tackling HIV-Aids

Gettyimages 1356882228 (1)
Attendees are silhouetted by the public display of lights as part of the World AIDS Day commemoration at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. (Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Hollywood has been notorious for misrepresentation and exaggeration but sometimes they get it right. World Aids Day is observed annually on 1 December to raise awareness, to support people who have the disease and to remember those who died from it. Here are 10 movies on the theme that got it right:

  1. Precious: Lee Daniels’s award-winning 2009 film Precious was based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Daniels carefully tackles various social issues in this poignant film and Precious’s HIV status is treated with refreshing frankness. The initial revelation that Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is HIV positive emerges with the news that her abusive father has died of an Aids-related illness. She is determined not to see her own diagnosis as a death sentence. Precious gives birth to her second child who is HIV negative. It is likely that her abusive mother (Mo’Nique) is HIV positive and in denial about it. Precious instinctively sees a chance to turn her life around under the guidance of her new teacher Ms Rain (Paula Patton) and guidance counsellor (Mariah Carey). Mo’Nique won an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
  1. Philadelphia: This 1993 movie was one of the first major studio films to tackle the Aids crisis head-on. At the time, there was reluctance to make movies about HIV-Aids, especially one focused on those hardest hit — the gay community. Philadelphia is the story of a gay lawyer (Tom Hanks) who sues his high-powered firm for wrongful termination. He believes he was fired because of his HIV status. Hanks lost almost 20kg to play Andrew Beckett who, unable to find a lawyer willing to take his case, ends up with a homophobic ambulance-chaser named Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). The film is honest and raw and cleverly balanced between educating viewers about Aids and portraying the emotions of a man who’s not ready to die. 
  1. Yesterday: Is a local film starring Leleti Khumalo as Yesterday. Yesterday is a mother living with her daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase) in a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal. After falling ill, Yesterday learns that she is HIV positive. With her abusive husband in denial, and a young daughter to tend to, Yesterday’s goal is to live long enough to see her child go to school. The film explores issues of superstitions related to HIV and the poor healthcare conditions in South Africa. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Film category at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005. 
  1. Dallas Buyers Club: The 2013 film is loosely based on the true-llfe story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas-born, drug-taking, women-loving, homophobic man who in 1986 was diagnosed with HIV-Aids and given 30 days to live. Blindsided by the diagnosis, Woodroof, an electrician and rodeo cowboy, sets off looking for answers. His research reveals a lack of approved treatments and medications in the US, so he crosses the border into Mexico. He begins smuggling the alternative treatments into the US, challenging the medical and scientific community, including his concerned doctor, Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Woodroof finds an unlikely ally in fellow Aids patient Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual who shares Woodrof’s lust for life. Seeking to avoid the US government’s sanctions against selling non-approved medicines and supplements, they establish a “buyers club” where HIV-positive people pay monthly fees to access medicines. 
  1. Paris is Burning: In a cultural collision, this 1990 documentary on the ball culture in New York was released just six months after Madonna brought international attention to “voguing”. The film explores the Aids challenges, racism, transphobia and homophobia faced by the primarily African-American and Latino communities who were at the heart of drag ball’s heyday. 
  1. The Lazarus Effect: “The Lazarus Effect” describes the impact of free antiretroviral drug programmes on HIV-infected individuals in Zambia. Produced by Spike Jonze (Her, Being, John Malkovich), and directed by music video director Lance Bangs, the 2015 film benefits from a pared-back style of filmmaking which allows the interviewees to speak for themselves. 
  1. Straight Outta Compton: Released in 2015 and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, this biographical film follows the rise and fall of gangsta rap group N.W.A, including the Aids death of member Eric “Eazy-E” Wright in 1985. Although the film focuses on the rise of Dr Dre and Ice Cube’s music career, it’s important to note Eazy-E’s death at 31 was an eye-opener for many young people who weren’t educated about the disease at the time.
  1. And the Band Played On: Is a 1993 American television film drama based on the best-selling 1987 non-fiction book of the same name by Randy Shilts. Gay activist leader Bill Kraus (Ian McKellen) is dying and no doctor can name the desease that’s killing him. All anyone knows is that some epidemic is attacking homosexual men. Rather than get down to serious experimentation and study, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stonewalls any effort to prove that the disease is transmitted through the blood. The movie does a great job of depicting the early days of the HIV-Aids epidemic. 
  1. Parting Glances: This is writer and director Bill Sherwood’s sole film — he succumbed to an Aids-related disease a few years after it was released in 1986. The well-acted and brilliantly written film centres on Robert and Michael, a couple preparing for a two-year separation as Michael heads to Africa for work. Over the course of 24 hours, Robert, Michael, and their friends and lovers, collide to hilarious and heart-wrenching effect. Robert’s ex-boyfriend Nick (Steve Buscemi) is a rock star dying of Aids. But Nick is never a pitiable character, instead a strong and defiant survivor, a rarity for cinematic portrayals of people with Aids in the 1990s. 
  1. Gia: This 1998 biographical drama is about the life and death of the world’s first supermodel, Italian-American Gia Carangi (Angelina Jolie). The film was shot before Jolie’s own career went stratospheric. Filmed in mock-documentary style, and including passages from Carangi’s diary, this film contains powerful messages about identity, drug addiction and Aids. Carangi’s rise to stardom was fast and she soon turned to drugs, eventually developing a severe heroin addiction. Unable to fight her addiction, she contracted HIV through a needle containing infected blood, leading to her death at just 26.