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Socialist Review, May 1994

John Beckley


Better late than never


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


And the Band Played On
Dir: Roger Spottiswoode

Dir: Jonathan Demme

For more than a decade Hollywood ignored the Aids epidemic. That has now changed. Two new films represent Hollywood’s first attempts to deal with Aids.

Philadelphia is about one man’s fight against the discrimination that faces people with Aids. Its strength is that it doesn’t treat its lead character, Becket, as a passive victim.

The film has been seen by mass audiences who didn’t know people with Aids and has challenged the perceptions of the disease.

And the Band Played On, on the other hand, is a hard hitting polemic against the American government which refused to give money for Aids research because it mainly affected gay men, against Reagan who refused even to say the word for years, and against drug companies who were more bothered about claiming the credit for discovering the virus than finding its cure.

The film is based on Randy Shilts’ book of the same name. The book is a history of the disease, its spread, attempts to discover its cause and the effects it had on individuals and communities.

To try and turn it into a film was going to be hard and it doesn’t always succeed. At times the images work well, for example counterposing scenes of Young Republicans chanting, ‘Four more years’, when Reagan was re-elected to scenes of people dying, their faces covered in the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Because the film couldn’t possibly cover in two hours what the book covered in 600 pages, it concentrates on the detective story aspect. Scientists play detectives searching for the murderer – the HIV virus. This means it neglects some of the social aspects surrounding the epidemic.

The most controversial aspect of Shilts’ book was his position that the bathhouses (places where gay men met to have sex) should be shut down. He believed that they were a major cause of the spread of Aids. Most lesbian and gay activists opposed this view.

The film unsuccessfully tries to cover this long running debate in one scene.

There are criticisms to be made of both films, but at least films about Aids are now being made. It is after all a disease which according to the World Health Organisation will affect 40 million people by the end of the century.

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