Richard Berkowitz, the man at the center of Daryl Wein’s intelligent and engaging Sex Positive, is the ideal documentary subject: with his combination of self-effacement and daunting confidence, Berkowitz easily commands the screen throughout its short running time. Such an appealing figure is especially crucial for a film that focuses on a subject as potentially didactic and strictly educational as the promotion of safe sex for the gay community. 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. In a sense, Berkowitz, who’s all at once wily, compelling, articulate, and sardonic onscreen, is the hook: once we’re sucked in, though, we learn a great deal about the history of the epidemic, and the various responses to it, presented in a sharply linear fashion.
What makes Berkowitz—who nationally spoke and wrote on the practice of safe sex at a time when many gay activists, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s Larry Kramer, were trying to distance the community from such loaded terms as “promiscuity” and thus from Berkowitz—an engaging, even seductive, conduit through which to examine the era is not just his presence onscreen but also his personal history. One might call him a reluctant activist, if even an activist at all, as his seeming hesitancy to delve into certain aspects of his past helps reveal. Now a self-proclaimed “old fart,” Berkowitz, after coming out early and first showing signs of political engagement battling homophobia at Rutgers, had found his erotic calling as a hustler specializing in S&M. As the interstitial moments that open Sex Positive.—showing an off-the-cuff Berkowitz arguing with the filmmaker about not wishing to discuss his once-upon-a-time sexual practices—illustrate, he doesn’t want to dig up stuff that had once stigmatized him, and perhaps even damaged his promise as an important voice in the battle against AIDS.
Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Sex Positive.