How HIV / AIDS Has Been Depicted in Movies Over the Years

In this article I explore how HIV / AIDS has been depicted in movies over the years. I trust that you’ll find this info insightful.

In 1993, the movie Philadelphia was released into theaters and received critical acclaim. The movie featured Tom Hanks as Andy Beckett, a closeted gay lawyer who contracts AIDS and takes his former employers to court over discriminatory termination. While it was not without controversy, Philadelphia continues to garner praise for the way it handled homophobia and the AIDS crisis.

Historically, tragedy and prejudice have been treated poorly by Hollywood. There is a line between accurate representation and exploitation, and many films lean toward the latter. Without firsthand experience with an issue, it can be hard for filmmakers to treat it accurately.

HIV Aids

However, the way culture thinks about and treats AIDS has changed over the years as well. With better treatment and more awareness, the issue has — at the least — been handled in ways that show various perspectives of the disease. Still, the history of its subject matter in movies has been shaky at times. However, modern pushes for representation might be changing that in the future.

The History of HIV/AIDS Representation

Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1984) is sometimes considered the first movie to tackle the AIDS crisis. It was Sherwood’s last movie before dying of the disease himself. Since then, there has been a unique cadre of movies attempting to handle HIV and AIDS.

In some cases, this representation has been poor and inconsistent with reality. The Grio ripped Tyler Perry’s Temptation apart for it’s vilification of those with HIV. On the other hand, movies like 2017’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) were praised by Vulture for being a “unique, intimate portrait of the community from the inside.”

Additionally, the presence of the disease is something that’s settled in a bit since the 1980s. This has caused western movies to thematically cover safe sex, the importance of consent, and the necessity of STD screenings. Many films are also attempting to address the different populations that are affected by AIDS as well. For instance, Indian movies are covering this issue a lot, because their country has the third largest AIDS epidemic.

A Changing Social Attitude

The aforementioned social awareness has played a huge role in how media representation of HIV/AIDS has changed. In a piece for the Guardian last year, Alex Davidson wrote that homophobia in the 1980s contributed to weak cinematic handling of the issue. As shown in Philadelphia, there was a common belief that gay people brought HIV upon themselves simply by engaging in homosexual relations.

But as time went on, we saw movies like Dallas Buyers Club portraying straight men with the disease and being forced to reckon with their own homophobic prejudice. Movies like Gia, which featured Angelina Jolie, also helped to normalize the truth about the disease outside of the gay community. Thus, society became less assuming about HIV and began to look at it through a more diverse lense.

However, that doesn’t mean that at-risk populations have been thrown to the wayside either. 1993’s Silverlake: The View From Here was praised by Huffpost for its documentation of a gay couple’s deterioration with the disease, and more recently 2014’s The Normal Heart depicted the rise of New York’s HIV crisis in the 80s. While cultural awareness around HIV/AIDS has changed, so has the way mass media has handled it.

The Hollywood Filter Vs. A Harsh Reality

While representation is important, it can still be a hard line to walk between a respectful portrayal of HIV and the rose colored glasses of Hollywood. The awkward pull between accessibility and an uncomfortable subject can be found outside of this issue, and unfortunately often leads to exploitation and victimization. At the same time, one could argue an issue cannot be well addressed if profit is on the line.

Take the harsh depiction of the disease in 1995’s Kids, and contrast it with 2004’s Rent. Both featured Rosario Dawson playing a woman who had contracted HIV. The way the disease was represented is incredibly different though.

In Kids, it’s diverse and heartbreaking. Spoiler alert! A teenager who has had sex with one person tests positive for the disease. Her friend who’s had multiple partners does not. In Rent, the disease is dramaticized with singing and dancing.

The matter of accessibility in releasing these movies is hard for directors to grapple with, especially if the issue has never affected them personally. As Vice put it, “it’s unclear whether America could stomach another Kids. We’ve increasingly developed a cultural propensity to distill HIV’s narratives of horror through palatable Hollywood formula.” Yet, we may find the solution to this balance outside of fiction, with documentaries about HIV and AIDS patients seemingly carrying the torch. Their reality-focused format removes a layer of exaggeration that may be found in fiction. It does still spread awareness in a palatable way though.


At the end of the day, this is an example of how the conversation is ever changing. Society is still trying to grapple with the issue of HIV/AIDS. Fact is, a movie’s profitability is unfortunately a necessary part of that conversation. While cultural awareness increases, we’ll see the way we look at historical movies change as well. Philadelphia may not meet all of 2019’s culturally aware standards, but it does have an important place in the way society now accepts HIV’s reality.

Watch this space for updates in the Movies category on Running Wolf’s Rant.


Staff Writer

Running Wolf's Rant's correspondent who chooses to remain anonymous...

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