Oscar Watch: Celebrating Films that Tackle HIV Stigma and Discrimination

HIV/AIDS was the silent red carpet star this awards season, as the critically acclaimed “Dallas Buyers Club” captivated audiences with its powerful examination of the resilience of the human spirit.

Focus Features

The 86th Annual Academy Awards  are on Sunday, March 2, 2014. In honor of Best Picture nominee “Dallas Buyers Club,” we’re taking a look at award-winning films that boldly portray the realities of living with HIV/AIDS and rally against stigma and discrimination.

“Philadelphia”

In 1994, Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who sues his firm for wrongful termination after he’s fired for having AIDS. In a surprising move, Beckett hires his professional rival to represent him, a homophobic and fast-talking lawyer named Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). As the trial progresses, the disease ravages Beckett’s body, while Miller’s intolerance gives way to compassion.

As Beckett, Hanks humanized a disease that devastated the United States for more than a decade, while Washington gave a voice to many of the stereotypes that perpetuated stigma toward people living with HIV.

Many of Hollywood’s celebrities wore red AIDS-awareness ribbons to the 63rd Annual Academy Awards as a sign of solidarity. In his acceptance speech, Hanks paid tribute to his high school teacher and a close friend who he said inspired his portrayal of Andrew Beckett.

“I know my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, we know their names, they number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons we wear here tonight.”

“Philadelphia” brazenly tackled HIV/AIDS at a time when the virus was so stigmatized that few studios or actors were willing to take on the controversial topic.

“Angels in America”

When it debuted on stage in the early 1990s, playwright Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” was wildly controversial. Set during the height of the AIDS epidemic, “Angels” follows the interwoven lives of eight New Yorkers as they struggle to reconcile illness, death, sexuality, and religion.

The play was frequently protested by religious groups and conservative commentators who took issue with the frank depictions of homosexuality and HIV. Yet despite the controversy, “Angels” became widely praised as one of the most candid portrayals of the realities of living with AIDS. Kushner removed the burden of blame from the person living with the virus, and instead focused on the ripple effects that homophobia and stigma have on families and relationships.

In 2003, HBO adapted Kushner’s play into a mini-series featuring actors Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Emma Thompson. Unlike the play’s initial reception, the “Angels” mini-series wowed critics and garnered international praise -- taking home five Golden Globes for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television at the 2004 Golden Globe Awards.

Meryl Streep also took home an Emmy for her role in the series. During her acceptance speech she took the time to thank Tony Kushner for his unflinching portrait of AIDS in America:

“The bravest thing in the world is that writer that sits alone in a room and works out his grief, his rage, his imagination, and his deep desire to make people laugh. He makes the work of art and then transforms the world with the truth, because that’s all we want – you know, that’s all we need.”


“How to Survive a Plague”

This Oscar-nominated documentary follows the genesis of two coalitions – ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG)– whose staunch refusal to cower in the face of discrimination and sometimes violence, generated international attention and eventually forced the U.S. government to break its silence about the AIDS epidemic.

Written and directed by journalist David France, who has covered the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the early 1980s, “How to Survive A Plague” weaves hours of archival footage of news coverage, demonstrations, and interviews into a powerful, angry, and riveting documentary that is ultimately about the resilience of the human spirit.


Dallas Buyers Club

In “Dallas Buyers Club,” Matthew McConaughey brings to life the true story of Ron Woodruff, a wild spirit who, after years of parties and bar brawls, receives the shock of his life: a full-blown AIDS diagnosis and only 30 days to live. “Dallas Buyers Club” chronicles Woodruff’s quest for survival as he battles the government and the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they so desperately need.

Though we’ve made tremendous progress since the 1980s, the discrimination and fear of stigma that Woodruff encounters throughout the film are still major barriers between us and the end of AIDS.

Take a stand against HIV/AIDS stigma.

Join the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and take the #ZeroDiscrimination pledge to ensure a future without  pervasive discrimination and fear of stigma.

Don’t forget to watch the 86th annual Academy Awards on Sunday March 2, 2014.