AIDS Narratives and Televisual Prophecy

Curator's Note

The prophet is a reoccurring figure in popular films about AIDS. These personas seem prominent especially in productions created for HBO. In And the Band Played On (1993), Dr. Don Francis warns repeatedly of the proliferating threat of AIDS, even as the world around him is marred by sexual and scientific politics. The Normal Heart (2014) finds its Cassandra in Ned Weeks, whose words are ignored consistently, often by the very community he wishes to protect. Angels in America (2003), while different in form and function, directly refers to its protagonist, Prior Walter, as a “prophet” in waiting.

If prophets are beholden more to their message than their audience, these films generally find dramatic tension in those who live in denial of their responsibilities and the threats confronting them. And the Band Played On underscored this tension in numerous antagonists that included a fiery gay mob, a promiscuous French Canadian flight attendant dubiously dubbed “Patient Zero,” the political volleying of ego-driven scientists, and bureaucrats more concerned with the bottom line than with people’s lives. The prophet offers clarity in the midst of confusion and gives narrative intelligibility to the complex politics that underscore historical events.

This form is powerful in Band, which is adapted from journalist Randy Shilts’s bestseller into a small screen experience told from the perspective of scientists. All three communicative forms (prophecy, journalism, science) utilize “truth” as a transparent mechanism for relaying knowledge free of social distraction. Band’s retrospective foresight allows viewers to shake their heads in disbelief as the epidemic unfolds. Not surprisingly, policy makers invoke these early histories of calamity frequently to forward specious measures in the name of public health, including edicts that forbid blood donations among men who have sex with men (a policy unchanged since the early 1980s) and the criminalization of people living with HIV. Band was part of a larger discourse that cemented queers as living in denial of their ravenous tendencies. In contrast to those who engage in reasoned deliberation, queer bodies are situated repeatedly as emotional, biased, and ultimately contagious. In many realms, that image plays on today.


A scene very similar to this, as you indicate, plays out in The Normal Heart. I really appreciate your focus here on those forms that seem most likely to guarantee "truth." Its especially interesting in light of the fact that at least two of those forms (journalism and science) were slow in responding to the crisis. The term retrospective foresight nicely captures something I was trying to explore in my piece later his week. Its interesting to take these texts that were produced in the moment AS history -- as speaking the "truth" of the moment -- rather than as historical documents -- on among competing voices and stories that were trying to make sense of a crisis unfolding. Here, these communicative forms come to stand as testament to what was "really happening/happened."

Thanks for your kind and productive comments, Kathy. I agree - the scene in The Normal Heart where Julia Roberts is standing before a room of unruly queers is eerily similar to the one that plays out here. The trope of social denial is strong in both and overlooks other campaigns and movements that were underway. In And the Band Played On it's underscored several times over through problematic gay male representations. Bill Krause (portrayed by Ian McKellen) is seen as willfully ignorant of the unrestrained sexual tendencies of gay men, Gaëtan Dugas ("Patient Zero") is portrayed as straight-up maniacal, and Eddie Papasano (played by Phil Collins) is opportunistic. There are certainly some sympathetic figures and ways to forge identification with queer characters, but the text does not make that process easy.

I own this movie but haven't yet had a chance to watch it, so I'm glad you posted this scene that I believe you talk about more in your excellent book "Banning Queer Blood" which everyone should read. The kinds of histories media tell are necessarily simple, but unfortunately sometimes that leads to an historical account that leaves out so much and dramatizes what's left. What I think is most interesting, and perhaps most personally fraught, is that as a gay man, I'm biologically wired to love Lily Tomlin, even when she's telling my people to shut the hell up. :-)

It fascinates me that several of our posts this week highlight moments from films spanning three decades that all demonize certain forms of sexual behavior--via those films, you can see a specific perspective on HIV/AIDS take hold and solidify. I probably should watch And the Band Played On even though everything I've read about it makes me think it will be an infuriating experience. For a really different view of casual anonymous sex, I like Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (which you may know already). It's part autobiography and part theorization of public space and community. I find it very compelling.

The film is certainly troubling in many respects (even Randy Shilts denounced some of its representations), but as I noted to Taylor, the partial truths of history make for an interesting viewing. I think two-and-a-half hours passes by very quickly. The fragmented history it presents works well for television production and consumption. And, yes, the Delany book is amazing!

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