What came to be called the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, crisis of the 1980s was not merely medical, but also political—and ultimately representational. The national conversation about AIDS shifted in 1985 when Rock Hudson admitted to being infected with the disease. The diagnosis of one of Hollywood’s leading men personified AIDS, which previously was solely attributed to homosexual men, men who have sex with men (MSM), and drug addicts (Benshoff 203). However, mass media continued to sensationalize AIDS, feeding the public’s appetite for hysteria and homophobia. The religious right, reinvigorated by America’s political pulse of the 1980s, also attributed AIDS to an ecclesiastical vengeance for the sin of homosexuality (204). The Reagan administration supported the political climate, and 1986 the Bowers v. Hardwick decision entrenched the notion of “us” versus “them” even deeper by outlawing private consensual sodomy (203).
The effects of AIDS permeated the chambers of Capitol Hill and were felt nationwide. In the film industry: AIDS tore apart colleagues because actresses refused to play opposite of men known to be gay; studios removed kissing scenes from scripts because it was believed AIDS could be passed through embraces; films confronting the issue of AIDS weren’t given the green light (Benshoff 204). Although, the production of “pseudo-AIDS” films commenced as a result, it was clear that AIDS “was going to be dealt with responsibly outside of the Hollywood studios” (206).
The true representation of the AIDS crisis and its impact came from independent films. Oftentimes they were commissioned by gay men living with AIDS and showcased storylines that chronicled the plights of HIV-positive protagonists. As Benshoff and Griffin assert, these films served three purposes: to humanize people with AIDS, educate society about AIDS, and to ease society’s appetite for the hysteria and homophobia that sparked a religious and political crusade against homosexual men (Benshoff 212). “Through their media collectives, they also changed the way that America looked at AIDS and contributed to a renaissance in queer video and filmmaking” (211). The community that organized in response to the AIDS crisis tireless fought for better treatment of HIV-positive men and women. This unconventional media—artisanal, grassroots, and noncommercial in nature—became analogous to the underground films of the 1960s. Benshoff and Griffin note that activist films used atypical methods of production, distribution, and exhibition. They were shown at all available opportunities and were more willing to undertake a confrontational tone that broke from the mainstream cinematic form (213).
In Chocolate Babies, this assertiveness is demonstrated. The film takes place in the underworld of New York City and follows the lives of infected and minority “queer outcasts.” Unlike films of the past, Winter produced a film that does not proclaim its protagonists to be victims of the disease. They are empowered by their status, determined to make their voices heard in a society that looks the other way. It humanizes the disease with men of color—especially the conclusion of the film, in which Max succumbs to the disease at the side of his lover Sam. It also confronts the hypocrisy of politics during the early years of the AIDS crisis, by characterizing Mel Freeman as a closeted councilman who seduces Sam (Winter).
Also evident in Chocolate Babies is the sense of community to which Mercer alludes. The idea of making a minority visible and finding a voice is the cornerstone of Chocolate Babies. The group of men of color around which the film is based constantly find themselves speaking out at the microphone in an underground bar (Winter). The audience never sees the audience—this is because the audience they address traverses the silver screen. The film follows an argumentative premise against government policy and shouts it for the world to hear. Mercer also addresses “communifying,” and how the black community transforms experiences that previously were individually based into those of a collective agency (Mercer 238). Chocolate Babies works along these lines, finding itself “in the spaces between different communities” (Mercer 239).
As more activist films were produced, it became clear that, in contrast to earlier films, they were as diverse as the coalition of identities that came together to produce them. Their predecessors found themselves striking an appeasing, emotional tone because they were marketed to a larger audience. AIDS activist films, however, were made for other AIDS activists.
A recent AIDS activist film, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, is a documentary that encompasses the quintessential characteristics of the 1980s activist films.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/33185730″>United in Anger Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/unitedinanger”>United in Anger</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
The informative and moving film aims to educate society on the history of the movement the AIDS crises bore. The very civil disobedience that was intrinsic to the AIDS activist films is also evident in United in Anger; it is a reminder that challenging authority collectively and constructively can be effective (Hubbard).
Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffin. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
Hubbard, Jim, dir. United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. 2012. Film
Mercer, Kobena. “Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film.” Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Winter, Stephen, dir. Chocolate Babies. 1997. Film.