Synopsis: “Sex Positive” explores the life of Richard Berkowitz, a revolutionary gay S&M- hustler-turned-AIDS activist in the 1980s, whose incomparable contribution to the invention of safe sex has never been aptly credited. Berkowitz emerged from the epicenter of the epidemic as a community leader, demanding a solution to the problem before anyone else would pay attention. However, it was not Berkowitz’ voice alone that sparked contention. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a controversial virologist and AIDS doctor, postulated that AIDS was more complicated than just a new virus. With Sonnabend’s theory in tow, Berkowitz fought, alongside beloved activist and musician Michael Callen, for safer sex practices without giving up on sex altogether. [Synopsis courtesy of film’s official website]
Round-up: "Richard Berkowitz, the man at the center of Daryl Wein’s intelligent and engaging 'Sex Positive,' is the ideal documentary subject," observes Michael Koresky in his review for indieWIRE. "W... ith his combination of self-effacement and daunting confidence, Berkowitz easily commands the screen throughout its short running time... Yet director and editor Wein smartly doesn’t use Berkowitz, a groundbreaking writer and safe-sex spokesman who contracted HIV in early eighties New York, as a mouthpiece for an agenda-driven doc; rather he presents the debates surrounding safe-sex discourse, and its connection to scientific theories surrounding the virus itself, as integral elements in Berkowitz’s biography." Variety's Dennis Harvey would seem to agree. Though he notes that "Hedonism in the New York City gay population's pre-AIDS 1970s, the disease's devastating impact and the formation of the Gay Men's Health Crisis have been amply documented before... Daryl Wein's engrossing portrait of Richard Berkowitz is freshly engaging largely due to the subject himself: a still-cranky, likable former hustler ironically scorned by many as 'the Jerry Falwell of the gay community' when he began urging men to practice safer sex with fewer partners." Echoing their assessments, the Village Voice's Melissa Anderson calls Berkowitz a "fascinating, garrulous paradox" and notes that the doc "does a good job of capturing (though, dizzyingly, not always with a tripod) the internecine struggles among gay activists that played out on Manhattan public-access TV and in the pages of the New York Native during the first years of the pandemic." Critics have also noted that the film provides a wake-up call for today's youth who are too young to remember the AIDS crisis. "It is only at the end of Daryl Wein’s documentary portrait of the onetime AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz that its agenda as a polemic against societal amnesia becomes apparent. Noting that in recent years H.I.V. infection rates among gay men have begun to climb, this sad, useful film sounds an alarm about the return of unprotected sex among young gay men who believe that contracting the virus is unlikely," writes Stephen Holden for the New York Times. Similarly, the New York Post's Kyle Smith observes that "For gays who remember the nightmare, 'Sex Positive' may be too depressing to watch. But the movie strikes a cautionary tone for a younger generation that, it says, isn't taking the HIV threat seriously."