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8 Movies That Changed Our Perception of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Long before this year’s pandemic, we were fighting to find a cure for the HIV virus. Similar to the coronavirus, there were a lot of unknowns about HIV.

Millions of people died, especially among marginalized populations. While World AIDS Day takes place annually on December 1st, the ongoing global pandemic has left us little time to reflect on the impact of what was once a global epidemic.

There’s no shortage of great movies capturing the early years of the AIDS epidemic – its everyday heroes and overnight activists, its fighters and its victims. If you weren’t “there” to confront the crisis, these archival movies will place you in the center of an electrifying historical movement. To feel the urgency of gay rights today is to know the life-or-death meaning of being woke in the early 1980s.

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About 700,000 Americans have perished from HIV/AIDS since 1981. Even now, as we live through a global pandemic, we continue to fight the HIV virus, which has thankfully become more manageable through modern medicine.

This week, between watching holiday movies, we encourage you to watch a few movies that changed the way we think about HIV and AIDS. Honor World AIDS Day by watching these 8 films that help us remember the lives, the hearts, and the revolution.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

This Oscar-nominated documentary is considered the definitive movie depicting AIDS activism. It uses over 700 hours of archived footage and has a score of 86 out of 100 on Metacritic. Larry Kramer stars in the film.

Director and journalist David France said many of the activists knew they would die and felt the historic significance of their fight being documented. France dedicated the documentary to his partner Doug Gould who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992.

The heat and light of the now-famous activist groups ACT UP and TAG are on display in this movie. As a viewer, it feels as if you’re on the front lines of the demonstrations and confrontations. You see the outrage directed at government and the pharmaceutical industry, the time capsule purity of news footage, and the heroism that burns bright with a cry from the past.

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Angels in America (2003)

This Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols is based on Tony Kushner’s play of the same name. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play when it debuted on Broadway in 1993.

The made-for-cable series starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson quickly became the most-watched cable film in 2003.

Then and now, critics and viewers revere the poetic story-telling of a movie that features an angel, soaring dialogue about love and mortality, and the hard world of Eighties New York City and Reagan-era politics.

In its intimate portrayal of the intersecting lives of its characters, this miniseries helps you to get inside what matters most in a movement: love and loyalty.

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The Normal Heart (2014)

This HBO film based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name is a classic. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the movie stars actors Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, and Julia Roberts.

The movie depicts the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City through the eyes of a writer-activist named Ned Weeks (Ruffalo).

Weeks forms an HIV advocacy group as he and a few others are among the first to connect the dots. The fictional group appears to be inspired by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group founded by Larry Kramer in 1982.

The Normal Heart shows the passion, anger, and intelligence that sprang up in the dawning awareness of horror. We also see the different styles of activism that took shape back then. Ned’s in-your-face activism reverberates today for its efficacy and poignancy.

Philadelphia (1993)

This two-time Academy Award-winning movie stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in electrifying performances that put this city on the map for Hollywood and put gay rights front and center in our country.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, the movie depicts the story of attorney Andrew Beckett as he soldiers through the twin afflictions of AIDS and workplace discrimination.

This Hollywood blockbuster galvanized the country in its raw depiction of homophobia, workplace discrimination, political ignorance, and the firebrand activism that can change everything for a later generation. It also brings people inside the suffering and wrenching disintegration of an AIDS patient.

The Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

This biographical film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.

It depicts the story of Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), a swashbuckling hetero cowboy in Dallas who takes matters into his own hands when he is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985.

After the drug AZT worsens his condition, Woodruff starts a black market business with drugs smuggled from Mexico. His business partner Rayon (Leto) is a trans woman who is drug-addicted and HIV-positive. They call their business the Dallas Buyers Club. Their improbable friendship is the heart of this movie, and McConaughey and Leto deliver powerful performances. Their vulnerability, honesty, and get-it-done shared philosophy has deep political resonance today.

The Hours (2002)
Directed by Stephen Daldry, this psychological drama is based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 sensational book of the same name. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is itself loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—a classic for all time.

It’s easy to see why critics and viewers gushed over the movie, which received nine Academy Award nominations.

The well-reviewed film stars A-List celebrities including Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman.

This movie contains several storylines, with only one involving a character (Harris) dying of AIDS complications. In this way, the movie feels true to life for many people who may only know one person who died of HIV/AIDS.

The movie grabs hold of viewers as we witness the profound sweep of this man’s life—all in the space of a day.

That’s part of the genius storytelling. In the lifelong friendship between Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) and novelist-poet Richard Brown (Harris), we feel haunted by his longing and love, and his unfinished business as he succumbs to the trauma of AIDS.

And the Band Played On (1993)

Released in 1993, this HBO docudrama is based on acclaimed author Randy Shilts’ non-fiction book of the same title about “the politics, people and the AIDS epidemic.”

The film does an exceptional job of chronicling the events surrounding the early discovery and rapid spread of the virus and features an A-list cast of actors, including Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Richard Gere, Lily Tomlin, Anjelica Huston, Phil Collins, and Ian McKellan.

The story focuses on the politicians, medical professionals, and activists of the time their conflicting attitudes and opinions that accompanied the early conversations and discoveries surrounding the virus.

It remains an iconic look at the timeline of events in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a heartbreaking reminder of how many lives were lost to the disease before its origins and pathology were understood. Shilts died of complications from AIDS in 1994, one year after the film’s critically acclaimed release.

Rent (2005)

First a Tony award-winning Broadway stage production that spawned a blockbuster soundtrack, the movie Rent is an acclaimed musical production that tells the story of a group of friends as they navigate the challenges of careers, love, and relationships against the backdrop of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City.

Directed by Chris Columbus, and produced by Robert De Niro, Michael Barnathan, and Jane Rosenthal, the story follows Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal), and friends as they struggle to find a job, pay the rent, cope with drug addiction, and battle the effects of AIDS. Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia also star.

Honorable Mentions

The Promise is a 2016 historical drama set in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, years before the AIDS epidemic. However, filmmakers donated proceeds from the film to various non-profit humanitarian organizations, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Bohemian Rhapsody: This film follows the life of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, all the way up to his unforgettable performance at the 1985 Live Aid in Wembley Stadium. The film doesn’t shy away from showing the Queen singer’s battle with AIDS. Just like the current pandemic, the HIV virus did not discriminate. Even rock stars could succumb to the virus.

We know that the pandemic versus epidemic language can be confusing – this quick explainer should clear things up.

While the pandemic has changed the way we experience movies, we’re still here to give you everything you love about Hollywood! We’re not just a gossip site – we keep it real and go way beyond the movies. Like us on Facebook for Hollywood movie news, movies and shows to watch, and so much more.

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