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Review: Cost of Keeping HIV a Secret for Nearly 3 Decades in ’25 To Life’ (Now Streaming on Netflix)

Review: Cost of Keeping HIV a Secret for Nearly 3 Decades in '25 To Life' (Now Streaming on Netflix)

There’s a scene in “25 To Life” where William
Brawner prepares to attend Howard University’s homecoming after years spent
away from campus. He agonizes over what to wear as his family looks on. “I’ve
got to walk on Howard’s campus being the dude with HIV, with millions of
people. That’s why I’ve got to get cute,” he says. “They have to know
that I’m still here.”

For over 25 years, Brawner kept his HIV-positive status a
secret from nearly everyone in his life. After contracting the virus from a
blood transfusion as a child, his mother advised him not to tell anyone at
school about his status or the medications he was taking – a choice that
extended well into adulthood, even throughout his years as a popular and
promiscuous student in college. “25 To Life,” the debut feature
documentary from Mike Brown, tells the story of how Brawner contracted HIV and the
cost of keeping his secret, as well as his experience going public and his
quest for redemption as an HIV/AIDS educator with an HIV-negative wife.

In straightforward interviews with Brawner, his family,
friends, and old classmates, we hear about the fallout from his decision to
expose his secret, but we also learn about the attitudes that led him and his
family to keep mum in the first place – overwhelming fears and preconceived
notions about what was at first called GRID (gay related immune deficiency). We
also see how Brawner’s dangerous secret affects his psyche, expressed in a
constant drive to be seen as attractive and popular.

Unlike many films dealing with HIV and AIDS, where the story
centers on either the physical toll of the disease spectrum or heroic activism
surrounding issues, “25 To Life” hones in on the stigma surrounding
HIV/AIDS in the community and the mental and emotional toll it takes on those
living with it. Brawner isn’t painted as a hero or an object of sympathy; on
the contrary, the film shows him to be a deeply flawed individual who makes a
series of dangerous and damaging decisions, looks at why he made those
decisions, and in so doing helps answer the question of how HIV/AIDS has become
such a far-reaching epidemic. This is the biggest win for “25 To Life”
– that instead of aiming simply for inspiration or tears, it aims for honesty.

Even after Brawner comes to terms with the people he’s hurt
over the years, tries to make amends, and becomes a counselor with his own
youth center in Philadelphia, there’s still a healthy dose of judgment heaped
on him as he tells his story across the country, as if it’s the only one of its
kind. But if HIV/AIDS
statistics
tell us anything, it’s that Brawner’s story isn’t unique; that
there are in fact scores of people living with HIV and full-blown AIDS who,
whether through ignorance, irresponsibility or fear, go on infecting others. “25
To Life” gives an even-handed look at the issue. The film is a compelling
watch and an effective educational tool.

“25 To Life” is now streaming on Netflix

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