7 movies about the AIDS crisis to watch after It’s A Sin

Has Russell T. Davies’ devastating TV show made you want to learn more about the AIDS crisis? Add these to your watch list.

by Tom George
01 February 2021, 9:00am

still from Tongues Untied (1989)

Set in the decade that saw HIV/AIDS tear through the LGBTQ+ community, It’s A Sin, the new drama from Channel 4 and HBO created by godfather of British TV Russell T. Davies, has been hailed as a “masterpiece”. It’s also believed to be All4’s biggest ever drama launch. But aside from the stellar cast (which includes Years & Years’ Olly Alexander), heart wrenching storytelling and throwback soundtrack, part of the show's appeal comes from the fact that it’s filling a glaring gap in contemporary television: tackling a disease few people are -- and were -- willing to talk about on British screens.

There’s a genuine demand for a queer history that many of us were never taught at school, a byproduct of the damaging Section 28 that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality (thanks Maggie), and a desire for the truth about an epidemic that was permitted to spread thanks to misinformation, active governmental negligence and a passivity within the community born out of fear.

But while Hollywood has historically been fairly silent on the AIDS crisis -- save, of course, for Philadelphia -- there are a handful of movies that hauntingly and convincingly tell the stories of those lost during the epidemic. The unapologetic queerness and outspoken anger of AIDS activists is showcased in these seven movies, fighting against a silent media and apathetic conglomerates while loved ones disappear around them.

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)

“We were very scared that the Reagan administration was going to put people with AIDS in internment camps,” says gay writer and activist Gregg Bordowitz in this doc. “I think we came close to that in this country.” He’s joined by key individuals from US AIDS activist groups ACT UP and Gran Fury -- such as Larry Kramer, Avram Finkelstein and Ann Northro -- who each express the feeling within the queer community at the time towards the government’s inertia, the greed of pharmaceutical companies, and the public’s judgement. Here, we learn through archival footage and personal accounts how activists used civil disobedience to raise awareness and create change.

1985 (2018)

In this black and white drama, Cory Michael Smith (known too for Carol) plays a closeted gay man living in New York City who returns to his Dallas hometown after finding out he is HIV+, planning to say a final goodbye to his family and childhood best friend. With a Christian radio station ever-present in the background, soundtracking each conversation and constantly setting the tone within the household, this beautiful yet heartbreaking film by Yen Tan showcases the stigmas against HIV in the 1980s American Deep South, as well as the difficulties of growing up queer within conservative religious circles.

Tongues Untied (1989)

When this experimental documentary first came out, it sparked a major debate about government spending in the arts, with a candidate in the 1992 Republican primaries using the film to accuse George Bush of investing in ‘pornograpic and blasphemous art’. (The film was part-financed by government funding.) But beyond the controversy, Tongues Untied is a monumental work within queer cinema; one that showcases the experiences of being a queer Black man in America during the AIDS epidemic. Told from the perspective of Riggs himself, you witness him experience ostracisation from both heterosexual people of colour and the white gay community -- something that QPOC still face to this day.

BPM (2017)

From scenes of protest to jubilant pride parades, the visually stunning AIDS drama 120BPM is set at the blossoming of ACT UP Paris at the start of the 1990s. With the French government slow to act and pharmaceutical companies taking advantage of the rising epidemic, the activist group stage various displays of rebellion. We watch its members try to mobilise a movement, while fighting the disease that’s destroying many of their own bodies. They fall in love and have their hearts broken as death surrounds them. Directed by a former member of ACT UP Paris, Robin Campillo, and with a leading cast of openly queer actors, BPM tells the story of the French fight against AIDS with a natural and unmatched authenticity.

All About My Mother (1999)

Winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1999, this critically-acclaimed Spanish comedy-drama is a spiritual successor to its gay creator Pedro Almodóvar’s previous film, The Flower of My Secret. All About My Mother, starring Penelope Cruz and Cecilia Roth, presents the stigmas surrounding AIDS in Madrid at the end of the century that affects, not only those who are HIV+, but their children. As Cecilia’s character tries to protect those dying around her while raising an innocent child, she fights the stigmas that have been heightened by both national religious zeal and ingrained societal homophobia.

The Normal Heart (2014)

Directed by Ryan Murphy, the hit showrunner behind American Horror Story and The Boys In The Band, this is an adaptation of the groundbreaking semi-autobiographical play by founder of New York’s ACT UP movement, the late Larry Kramer. Focusing on the early days of the epidemic in NYC, The Normal Heart follows those within the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and their few allies within the medical community as they try to bring awareness to what was then referred to as ‘gay cancer’. (Early on, the disease was largely dismissed as a conspiracy by the queer community due to the lack of medical or media attention the supposed epidemic was getting.) The Normal Heart stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts alongside regular Ryan Murphy collaborators like Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Johnathan Groff. Expressing the anger and pain felt by the survivors of the crisis, the film delves into the struggle of LGBTQ+ people coming to terms with a disease that was attacking the communities and safe spaces they had created for themselves. Those who had spent decades fighting for their right to love and have sex were now being told they couldn’t.

Buddies (1985)

The first ever feature film about the AIDS crisis, the low-budget American indie Buddies, directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr., was produced in reaction to Hollywood’s silence on the subject of AIDS -- sidelined, because it was affecting predominantly gay and bisexual men, trans folk and drug addicts. This intimate film follows a friendship and romance that develops between two gay men -- one a monogamous hospital volunteer who “doesn’t have any friends who have AIDS”, the other a playful queer man who’s been hospitalised, dying from the virus. What makes the film even more heartbreaking is the fact that both Arthur, the director, and lead actor Geoff Edholm would die from AIDS complications just a few years after the film’s release. They didn’t live long enough to recognise their invaluable contribution to queer cinema; one which set a precedent for other LGBTQ+ filmmakers to tell our history from our own perspectives, with queer voices at the fore.

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