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The Trouble With Representing HIV/AIDS In The Very Troublesome ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

The Trouble With Representing HIV/AIDS In The Very Troublesome 'Dallas Buyers Club'

This piece was originally published during the Toronto Film Festival. “Dallas Buyers Club” has now been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including best picture.

I’ll admit that I walked into “Dallas Buyers Club” looking for trouble. How couldn’t I? One of a small handful of American cinematic representations about the onset of the AIDS in the 1980s, any film that tries to tackle a controversially neglected, remarkably devastating chapter in history is set to be challenged when it comes to how it represents it. Especially when the people tackling it — and being heroized within it — do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS.

The idea of someone directing a film that largely represents a demographic of people that they do not belong to is clearly no new notion (see “Brokeback Mountain,” “Philadelphia,” “The Color Purple,” “Django Unchained,” “Norma Rae” and “Thelma & Louise”). And in many of those cases, things worked out just fine (“Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée was an example of that himself with his fantastic 2005 gay coming-of-age story “C.R.A.Z.Y.”). But the immediate concern with “Dallas Buyers” wasn’t that it’s being directed by a straight white dude (not that I’d even let that concern me at this point anyway), but that it’s about a straight white dude.

In “Dallas Buyers Club,” the most powerful demographic in America is being used to portray a story about a devastating disease that has historically had very little to do with them, except when it came to the people ignoring, stigmatizing and inadvertently killing people with AIDS. Yes, it’s based on a true story and yes, there are indeed straight white men who have died from AIDS, and even more straight white men who have shown nothing but love and compassion for people affected by the disease. But since it’s been 20 years since the last major Hollywood film (“Philadelphia” came out in 1993) that dealt primarily about an epidemic that has killed over 650,000 in the United States (over half of them gay men), all I could say to myself going into the film’s first screening at the Toronto Film Festival was “this better just be a really, really good movie.” Unfortunately, it was not. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

“Dallas Buyers Club” wastes no time setting things up for us. It begins with images of cowboys and American flags at a Texas rodeo before introducing us to its alleged hero, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), who is having sex with two women under the rodeo’s stand. It’s the first of many, many times in the film when we are bombarded with images of female flesh, cowboy hats and various other symbols of macho Americana. Just in case it wasn’t already very, very clear that Woodroof is as straight and American as they come (it’s safe to relate to him, straight dudes!).

What’s also clear a few minutes later is that Woodroof is as homophobic as they come. With a newspaper headline announcing Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS on the table in a back room at the rodeo, he announces to his fellow cowboys: “You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?” Oblivious to Woodroof is the fact that he too has AIDS, but he finds that out soon enough. Before the 10-minute mark of “Dallas Buyers Club,” he’s collapsed and taken to the hospital, where he wakes up to find two doctors (an evil one played by Denis O’Hare, and a saintly one played by Jennifer Garner) telling him he has “tested positive for HIV” (despite the fact that it’s explicitly noted that it is July 1985 at the time, ten months before “HIV” was ever used to describe the virus that causes AIDS).

“I ain’t no faggot motherfucker,” Woodroof responds to them when asked if he’s ever had homosexual relations. And thus begins the film’s core narrative, in which Woodroof — faced with a diagnosis of 30 days to live — fights for his life by heading to Mexico to find drugs not yet approved in America and bringing them back to Dallas to use himself and to sell to the largely gay demographic of people in town also suffering from the disease (selling memberships to a “buyer’s club” — an idea he rips off from AIDS activist group ACT UP in New York — to sell the drugs without breaking the rules).

I fully expected his evolution from this point forward would work toward making Woodroof becoming worthy of the heroic status the film is clearly giving him. That his intentions for selling the drugs would appear less selfish (at first he’s clearly doing it for the money, even refusing a poor young gay kid drugs because he doesn’t have the money) and that he himself would learn to love the gays and rid himself of his rampant homophobia. But by the film’s end, it’s not entirely clear that either evolution fully takes place.  It also becomes increasingly clear that the film itself is offering a pretty questionable representation of the few actual queer characters it actually gives more than one line of dialogue.

The most prominent example of such is also the main catalyst for whatever progress Woodroof does make in reducing his homophobia: Rayon, a trans-female played by Jared Leto. Woodroof meets Rayon when they are sharing a hospital room, and reluctantly allows her (though the film consistently has other characters refer to Rayon as “him” or “he,” which is perhaps simply a sign of those times and not as questionable as it seems) to massage a cramp in his leg — the first sign of Woodroof’s changing tune. Then when Woodroof starts trying to sell drugs to the gay community and is repeatedly shut down, he goes to Rayon for help. Initially offering a 5% cut, Rayon gets him to up it to 25% after saying that she can take his homophobic insults, but not a shitty deal.

From that point forward, Rayon becomes Woodroof’s right-hand gal, helping him manage the buyers club and giving him an opportunity to actually get to know a queer person. The film gives us a scene that is obviously intended to express the resulting progress when the two are shopping in a grocery store and Woodroof — himself now stigmatized from the disease and in large part ousted from the social group he was a part of before his diagnosis — defends Rayon when one his former friends calls harasses her, demanding that he apologize and shake her hand. It all comes across a little too transparent, and by this point Woodroof’s acceptance of Rayon seems to be born out of desperation than out of compassion. She’s almost all he has left, and his own derogatory remarks — though now said with an underlying affection of sorts — continue.

Worse is the film’s depiction of Rayon herself. Part an issue of the film’s simplistic screenplay and part of Leto’s performance, Rayon rarely extends beyond caricature. We never find out much about her beyond her relationship to Woodroof, and though she has a boyfriend that is present in many of the film’s scenes, we never even find out his name. The one scene that gives us insight into Rayon’s life beyond Ron Woodroof is when she goes to her monstrous, wealthy father to beg for money. He passive aggressively thanks her for dressing like a man before muttering “god help me.” And Rayon’s response is either the film’s best or worst line, I can’t decide: “He already has. I have AIDS.”

The fact that Rayon gives all the money she gets from her father (through a truly humiliating context) to Woodroof as a thank you continues the film’s representation of her as weak.  Why wouldn’t Rayon use that money to help herself? And why is Woodroof even worthy of such a gift? Because he learned to tolerate her? And successfully used her to help his own business venture get off the ground? “Dallas Buyers Club” consistently lionizes Ron Woodroof without really giving us a reason to feel like he deserves it.  Rayon, meanwhile, is continuously victimized (a Hollywood tradition for queer characters, but silly me for thinking this would be an exception), largely through her inability to overcome a drug addiction that eventually leads to her death (the screenplay even gives Leto the line “I don’t want to die!” to hysterically mumble in its final scenes). Woodroof is clearly a drug addict too (not to mention an alcoholic and a sex addict), and also struggles with overcoming it. But “Dallas Buyers” portrays his struggle with much less judgement than Rayon’s, and ultimately blames her death on her drug addiction (explicitly via a line by the doctor played by Jennifer Garner — herself a problematic character I won’t even bother getting into).

In the end, Ron Woodroof also dies. But we learn about this in the film’s credits, and not onscreen. His death is suggested as an achievement in survival, given he outlasted his diagnosis by six years. He also ends his presence in the film off in typical heroic style, being cheered on by a group of nameless gays and lesbians when returns home from a (largely failed) legal battle in California against the FDA. But Ron Woodroof is not a hero. Ron Woodroof was just a guy that — like countless others at that time — got creative so that he could survive. It’s impressive, but is it really worthy of becoming one of just a handful of films that represent this harrowing time in American history? No, it never was. But worse is that “Dallas Buyers Club” is not a very good movie on top of that. With lazy and uninspired direction from Vallée and a cookie-cutter screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” completely fails to portray the magnitude of the situation at hand (having an anti-Reagan poster out of focus in the background isn’t going to cut it). And as a result, you don’t end up caring much about what’s up on that screen. Even if it never should have been up there to begin with.

This Article is related to: Reviews


Comments

Paddy Grant

Having had to struggle through this lazy, uninspired article twice to make some sense of it – how someone with such a poor grasp of basic grammar and sentence structure could be allowed to submit this article is beyond me – I was more than surprised to see gays/homosexuals, referred to as queer. What decade is this author living in? He also seems to have missed out on the thrust of the movie. A distinctively homophobic guy, who has unprotected sex, finds himself in the same boat as the gays he despises. This is revelation No 1 You don't have to be gay to get AIDS. Revelation No 2: he meets a transgender called Rayon and realises that gays are actually people and not some sub-human kind of species that pose a threat to the testosterone-fuelled, flex your muscles to show you're a man group of homophobes. He/she is actually a decent human being who poses no threat to him. Sure, Rayon is a drug addict, but who knows what pressures she's had to endure simply to exist and remain true to herself. So what we see is a gradual change of heart from our main protagonist as he determines to fight the powerful drug lobby by importing supplements that the FDA will never approve because they CAN'T make money from it. This change of heart represents life in microcosm. It's about enlightenment, the shedding of prejudice and intolerance: what could be called the Damascene moment when people realise that their bigotry is based on nothing but ignorance. After all people in the past used to see anyone from Africa in the same light, i.e. sub-human, different and therefore dangerous, and look at how things have changed since then. Yes, the movie is about AIDS, but it does bring home that it is not an illness exclusive to homosexuals. Both Woodroof (MacConaughey) and Rayon (Leto) are superb in their roles. It's pointless calling Rayon's role a caricature when he's playing someone who, in real life, would be happy to accept that his life is a caricature. How many male fem-gays don't outdo females in their feminineness? So Rayon has a boyfriend and we don't know his name. So what? He plays no role in this story nor do I remember seeing him on screen. I'm hoping this movie will be seen by millions who will all then have their own Damascene moment and realise, just as Woodroof did, that people are people regardless of their sexual orientation. Certainly he's trying to save himself, but in so doing, he manages to save a lot of people along with him. If his foray into capitalism has something of Wolf of Wall Street about it, it's only art imitating life.

alexander

relax man.the story is about aids ,about fighting it,about finding a surprising new chapter in your life even in these dramatic circumstances,about new friends,about maturing,and about a thousand other things.it is a good story as norman jewison used to say.and mathew and leto are awesome in it.i don't think you approached the movie as it should be approached.wanna try again?

Ramona

Disagree with most of your thoughts, sorry. I agree with Alex.
You are also exaggerating at many parts and overly categorizing yourself (for instance, where is ever! implied that Ron Woodroof is a sex addict? We see him enjoying sex, yes, with different partners, yes, spread over a long period of time … so what? addict? — seems like you are thinking in boxes and cliches as well ('white straight man').

I thought this was beautifully done and the protagonist was very strong, inviting you on his journey and this magnificent story. Rayon was also a brilliant character and amazingly acted out by Jared Leto. Yes, the figure is – at times! – a caricature, but please, people are – at times! – caricatures. And the script and film does give him/her much more depth.

Shane

Can film makers no longer TELL STORIES without garbage analyses being thrown about?
Stop looking for "proper" representation on the silver screen.

Alex

Wow. People like you are so frustrating. All you ever do is complain about the political implications of every detail. As if every story is meant in someway to capture every part of a huge complex sociological problem. Films are intentionally incomplete, they are windows into characters lives. Not academic papers on Queer Theory. Even with all your whining, you suggest no detailed alternate approach, no improvements. Ad hominem attacks that straight people could never understand the plight of gay people, even though you somewhat backed off that line of thought…

I can only imagine the author of this article would be happy if every movie was made by committee, where only those people who are the same race, gender and socioeconomic class can be allowed to contribute to the direction and writing of a film. Imagine the horror if someone opened a piece with a bunch of pots shots at a black female director for attempting to make a movie about white suburban teens.

Terrible critique, no nuance. An embarrassment.

Joe H.

Jared Leto's character wasn't enough for you? lol

Josh M.

I find your analysis too simplistic and on the surface, especially of the character Rayon. The point that he was a drug addict (which isn't far from the truth for many LGBT people, especially back then) only added to Leto's brilliant performance. Even though Rayon was a drug addict and was perceived as weak by you, the audience gay or straight felt sympathy toward that character. Leto found levity and humanity within his character, not cariacture. We did not pity him but understood she was a human being with flaws like all of us, and what she went through, no one should. There was no judgement on our behalf. If we made Rayon as this beacon of perfection it would have been false and not as impactful. I can go on into your analysis of the film, but I too would have to write an article.

Stephanie

"that he himself would learn to love the gays and rid himself of his rampant homophobia. But by the film's end, it's not entirely clear that either evolution fully takes place." Perhaps because it wasn't clear that the evolution of the real person, upon whom the film is based, took place.

"With lazy and uninspired direction from Vallée…" I couldn't disagree more. An example would be the scene directly after Woodroof has found out that he has AIDS. The opening shot is framed to look like he is kneeling in front of a group of prayer candles, staring listlessly at them. The sound then comes up, camera pulls out, and he's just in front of a candle on the table at a strip club. There were numerous other examples, but that one stood out to me.

"Rayon gets him to up it to 25% after saying that she can take his homophobic insults, but not a shitty deal." OK, but this is also after she tells him off for said homophobic insults and gets out of his car, saying, "You don't deserve our money" (referring to the gay community who has AIDS).

I see a lot of your points, but I think you are over-emphasizing the extent to which Woodroof is portrayed as a hero. He's not, for most of the film. He's portrayed as an anti-hero and a very flawed person. I also didn't see Rayon as a weak character at all, being one of the few people who stood up to Woodroof and called him on his tough-guy posturing. Ideally, there would be many more films about this topic made from the perspective of those it most affected. However, I really liked this movie, and I'm glad it was made.

CrazyMF

Get a bigger coat, your chip is showing……

Too many people go into watching a film just looking for problems

weetiger3

All of the above is, as much as I love Matthew McConaughey, why I will not be okay when he accepts an Oscar in a year that saw a performance as phenomenal as Chiwetel Ejiofor's in 12 Years a Slave, a film that will (deservedly) win Best Picture.

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