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&gt;.</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).

Works Cited

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.

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3 thoughts on “

  1. samschmidt91

    Hi Dylan,
    I really like the point that you make about how their HIV/AIDS status “empowered” the men in Chocolate Babies. That phrase stood out to me, I think, because it took me by surprise. We don’t think of people with HIV, and certainly not gay, black men with HIV as being empowered, but rather, and this could be my white privilege talking, we see them as being victims. But while the characters in this film might in the strictest sense be victims of the disease, they do not come off as being victimized. These are people who are motivated by a sense of urgency to act, and above all to make people, especially in the heteronormative world of power, notice them and respond to their demands.

    And you are right, I think, that seeing these men assert themselves also humanizes them, and prevents them from being objects of pity. While this film was moving, it was not engineered to pluck the heartstrings. I do wonder, however, if maybe the goal was less to humanize the characters and maybe more to reflect their truth. I also wonder, who are they being humanized for, or does the question even matter? This film had a very small, and very specific audience. So while I agree that the film is humanizing, I have to wonder whether it would have been so originally for its audience, and what that audience looked like. In other words, was the film meant more as a way to share outrage with like-minded people, or was it meant educationally for an audience that, while sharing many unifying traits, was also diverse? Was the film for a larger queer community, or AIDS activist community, or was it intended just for its own community, made in the space between communities?

    -Sam

  2. channabach

    Great job explaining how the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s was “not merely medical, but also political—and ultimately representational”. You nicely trace how this framework challenged not only what appears on screen, but also how films themselves were made: the production process. Film collectives, video (rather than celluloid), and grassroots funding structures were foregrounded for political as well as pragmatic reasons.

    United In Anger is an interesting film to compare to Chocolate Babies, and I’d love to hear more about the connections you note. What similarities do you see in their production processes, funding structures, aesthetic form, and arguments, and where do the two films diverge?

    When citing a piece written by two author, make sure you give both credit by including both author’s name in the parenthetical citations like this: (Benshoff and Griffin 24)

    Nice job.

  3. tigomez@sas.upenn.edu

    Hey Dylan!

    I completely agree with your reading of the characters in “Chocolate Babies” being empowered by their disease rather than being marginalized by it. I also think the clip you decided to include at the end perfectly embodied the argument you made about the new face and representation of the disease. After watching the trailer, it truly exemplified many of the messages about the bureaucracy surrounding AIDS that “Chocolate Babies” addressed. However, because the documentary used actual clips of this era and movement surrounding AIDS, it was that much more impactful and powerful to see these movement play out in real life scenarios rather than in a film. Similarly, it was also encouraging to see that a movie like “Chocolate Babies” so accurately represented the AIDS activism that revolved around protests because so many of the clips shown in the trailer could almost be placed in “Chocolate Babies” and seamlessly be integrated into the film.

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