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by Peter Knegt
September 9, 2013 2:53 PM
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Que(e)ries: The Trouble With Representing HIV/AIDS In The Very Troublesome 'Dallas Buyers Club'

"Dallas Buyers Club"

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).

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31 Comments

  • Url Fin | March 13, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    You hit the nail on the head with this article.

  • Url Fin | March 13, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    You hit the nail on the head with this article.

  • Anita Midwest | March 8, 2014 3:11 AMReply

    my name is Anita from California USA , i was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 , and since then my life have never remained the same . I even infected my husband with the disease , until i meant a testimony from a woman called Tricia and what she said about a man called doctor Ajide. I contacted him and told him about my problem , and then he told me that i will need to do some things which i did , and after that he told me to give him some time to prepare the medicine for me . And then after he finished every thing , he told me that i will take the medication for 3 weeks which i did and 4 day ago i went for a test and surprisingly i am now HIV negative, he is also preparing another medicine for my husband, if you are in this kind of problem or you need help in any other disease cure , contact doctor Ajide via his email : olorunoduduwaspiritualtemple @g mail. com

  • Anita Midwest | March 8, 2014 3:11 AMReply

    my name is Anita from California USA , i was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 , and since then my life have never remained the same . I even infected my husband with the disease , until i meant a testimony from a woman called Tricia and what she said about a man called doctor Ajide. I contacted him and told him about my problem , and then he told me that i will need to do some things which i did , and after that he told me to give him some time to prepare the medicine for me . And then after he finished every thing , he told me that i will take the medication for 3 weeks which i did and 4 day ago i went for a test and surprisingly i am now HIV negative, he is also preparing another medicine for my husband, if you are in this kind of problem or you need help in any other disease cure , contact doctor Ajide via his email : olorunoduduwaspiritualtemple @g mail. com

  • Anita Midwest | March 8, 2014 3:10 AMReply

    my name is Anita from California USA , i was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 , and since then my life have never remained the same . I even infected my husband with the disease , until i meant a testimony from a woman called Tricia and what she said about a man called doctor Ajide. I contacted him and told him about my problem , and then he told me that i will need to do some things which i did , and after that he told me to give him some time to prepare the medicine for me . And then after he finished every thing , he told me that i will take the medication for 3 weeks which i did and 4 day ago i went for a test and surprisingly i am now HIV negative, he is also preparing another medicine for my husband, if you are in this kind of problem or you need help in any other disease cure , contact doctor Ajide via his email : olorunoduduwaspiritualtemple @g mail. com

  • Anita Midwest | March 8, 2014 3:10 AMReply

    my name is Anita from California USA , i was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 , and since then my life have never remained the same . I even infected my husband with the disease , until i meant a testimony from a woman called Tricia and what she said about a man called doctor Ajide. I contacted him and told him about my problem , and then he told me that i will need to do some things which i did , and after that he told me to give him some time to prepare the medicine for me . And then after he finished every thing , he told me that i will take the medication for 3 weeks which i did and 4 day ago i went for a test and surprisingly i am now HIV negative, he is also preparing another medicine for my husband, if you are in this kind of problem or you need help in any other disease cure , contact doctor Ajide via his email : olorunoduduwaspiritualtemple @g mail. com

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • Laura | February 15, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    I am sorry but I do not agree with you. I agree with some points (Rayon is a week character, Ron is not a hero), but I think that many of the things you say are wrong. I was extremely happy that Dallas Buyers Club is a story about a STRAIGHT white man that contracted the virus having STRAIGHT unprotected sex. This is so new, innovative in the representation of HIV. It shows that everybody can get it, that it is not a GAY disease. This is a good thing, not a bad one. Plus, you are not really well informed, otherwise you would know that in 1983 researchers successfully isolated the virus responsible for AIDS and labelled it HIV. 1983 not 1986. This is a Hollywood film about HIV made in 2014. To me it is always good to talk about this epidemic

  • ThomasEarlham | November 1, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    A basic truism that is ignored in reviews of this kind (and similar controversies surrounding "Schindler's List", "Django Unchained," etc) is that, from a storytelling perspective, the outsider is inherently more interesting than the insider, and seeing someone act in their own interest isn't as compelling as seeing someone act in the interest of others. In a story about oppressed or culturally marginalized people, it can be expected that members of the affected group will do brave and heroic things; what's more interesting is when people outside the group do brave and heroic things, because they don't *have* to and they have more to lose by doing so. A chicken who saves other chickens just isn't as good a story as a fox who saves chickens.

  • ThomasEarlham | November 1, 2013 11:57 AM

    Sorry for the double post. Someone please delete this one.

  • ThomasEarlham | November 1, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    A basic truism that is ignored in reviews of this kind (and similar controversies surrounding "Schindler's List", "Django Unchained," etc) is that, from a storytelling perspective, the outsider is inherently more interesting than the insider, and seeing someone act in their own interest isn't as compelling as seeing someone act in the interest of others. In a story about oppressed or culturally marginalized people, it can be expected that members of the affected group will do brave and heroic things; what's more interesting is when people outside the group do brave and heroic things, because they don't *have* to and they have more to lose by doing so. A chicken who saves other chickens just isn't as good a story as a fox who saves chickens.

  • bob hawk | September 13, 2013 1:57 AMReply

    Oy vey! This thread is becoming a tangled web of confusion (agree, "JIMSTOIC") and tortured syntax. I defy anyone to make sense of "JACKOFFSKY"'s last sentence: "It's not that you are incorrect in what you report, it's just that you seem to be defending the need for super ultra high def against regular high def when the human eye can only absorb so much without making everything unrealistic." And I can't tell who David Ehrenstein is addressing when he says "Sir you have DARED to question Heterosexual Privilege!" (but at least he uses his real name). I, for one, can't wait to see the damn thing. It looks like it's going to prove both provocative and polarizing.

  • Jackhoffsky | September 11, 2013 7:16 PMReply

    "The fact that Rayon gives all the money she gets from her father... 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?"

    WOW. Umm... polarizing bitterness anyone? The progression of the film is that of unselfishness. One can be a very douchey person, arrogant and a bigot and still see the need to help others. AND some people can just be nice, and thankful.

    There are several points in this review where the intricate cynicism of the minute seem to be more important than the importance of the character arcs and progression. There are nice people in the world... they give to those who are givers - whether it's a natural behavior or (in this case) forced. How you analyzed this is overly specific to events that happened at the worst time... IN TEXAS.

    I have a feeling (just a personal opinion) that had the film be made according to your critique, it would have been overly dramatic, drift too far from the original characters, and be entirely dislocated from its setting... especially in Texas.

    It's not that you are incorrect in what you report, it's just that you seem to be defending the need for super ultra high def against regular high def when the human eye can only absorb so much without making everything unrealistic.

  • jimstoic | September 11, 2013 5:17 PMReply

    I'm confused. So AIDS IS a gay disease?

  • ThomasEarlham | November 1, 2013 12:05 PM

    This pithy comment should effectively neuter this particular non-controversy. Well played.

  • David Ehrenstein | September 11, 2013 5:15 PMReply

    Sir you have DARED to question Heterosexual Privilege!

    I cannot thank you enough.

  • JK | September 11, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    ""Dallas Buyers Club" consistently lionizes Ron Woodroof without really giving us a reason to feel like he deserves it."

    Knegt isn't reviewing a film, he's reviewing his contempt of human nature--poorly and naively. He would do well to remove himself as the centerpiece of his critical reviews in the future.

  • kaccompany | September 11, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    It sounds to me like they told *a* story... and told it realistically... it just wasn't *the* story that you wanted to be told.

  • James McCarthy | September 10, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    The author's bias (admitted) and anger (evident in nearly every sentence) completely undercut him. This isn't a review one can consider reliable.

    Proof that his vision is obscured by bias and anger is abundant. Early evidence is the statement that it has been "20 years since the last major Hollywood film" to deal with the AIDS epidemic?

    That apparently rules out Angels in America as a major Hollywood film. I guess the fact that it aired on HBO discounts it somehow. A ridiculous notion in 2003 when the film was aired and light years beyond ridiculous today.

    Angel's is a phenomenal film production of the what may be the greatest American play of the last 50 years. It has a major director and is headed by a dream cast of A-listers giving wonderful performances. GLAAD saw fit to name it Outstanding Television Movie or Mini-Series for 2004.

    I'm going to forget this review and go see this movie.

  • bob hawk | September 10, 2013 6:17 AMReply

    Not having seen this film as yet, I would only want to point out that you state that it's "based on a true story" -- and since many of your criticisms are in regard to plot points and character behavior I just wonder how accurately the screenwriters delineated this one person's story (which appears to be an original screenplay, not an adaptation) . A lot of bizarre and crazy shit went down during those frightening first 10-plus years of the AIDS epoch, including some truly obnoxious (and underneath, scared) straight men with AIDS . You certainly can question the wisdom of choosing to tell this particular story -- as well as criticize factual inaccuracies and inferior filmmaking -- but anybody's story has a right to be told, no matter how offensive it may be to some viewers. I look forward to having a more informed opinion after seeing it, of course.

  • anonymous | September 9, 2013 10:33 PMReply

    We need STDs education. It's very important!!
    The number of members on the largest STDs dating&support site === http:LoveHerpesDating.com (if I spell the site correctly) has reached 731,000 members.
    OMG! Why so many guys and girls on the site are very sexy? Why so many people are infected by STDs? There is no doubt that we need protected sex.

  • Toby | September 9, 2013 6:11 PMReply

    Amazing review. Great analysis and great passion. More of that please!

  • indiewiresuuuuucks | September 9, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    Everything about this review is awful. I don't have the energy to explain.

  • pat | September 9, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    Wow.....Ang Lee, the director of Brokback Mountain is WHITE!

  • David | September 9, 2013 4:24 PM

    @Sujewa -- Race theory? You must subscribe to the post-racial America bit from standard media narratives. Either that, or you've never known an Asian American in your life.

  • Sujewa | September 9, 2013 4:19 PM

    Yeah, that's a bunch of BS :) Ang Lee is not considered "white" according to race theory popular in America. The entire thing is a useless idea anyway (race theory), so best to just let it die a quiet death.

  • David | September 9, 2013 3:30 PM

    @Pat --- In the eyes of most white Americans, he is. If you want sociological evidence of this, just read any academic retread on the perceptions of Asians (Asian Americans) by the white mainstream/power structures.