The Hollywood Conversation about HIV/AIDS

By Hana Kajimura

I watch the Oscars for the dresses, the upsets, and the comedy (for better or for  worse). This year I scanned the telecast, hoping for a speech that might move me in some way. Three hours and 24 acceptance speeches later, I found myself disappointed (though Ms. Portman’s nearly brought me to tears).

But in the past eight decades of Oscar history, there have certainly been some memorable speeches. And even more memorable when the winner is transformed by his or her role and moved to action. In 1993, Tom Hanks won Best Actor for his role in Philadelphia, as a lawyer who is fired because of his HIV positive status. His speech served to remember a classmate and a high school drama teacher.

“I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight.”

In many ways, actors like Tom Hanks have given widespread recognition to people and issues whose names were only whispered. After all, it was the Academy that gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1939, when civil rights issues were unpopular. Though not often enough, Hollywood has given voice to the issue of HIV/AIDS when it hasn’t been a popular or even accepted conversation to be had. I invite you to watch and remember some of my favorite stories, fictional and factual, told through film: Longtime Companion (1989), Philadelphia (1993), and Rent (2005).

Still today, actors lend their voices to the cause of Until There’s A Cure, and for that we are so grateful. Film has the unique power to create collective memories and living histories through sound and picture—one that must continue to be harnessed to retell the stories of AIDS heroes.


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