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Does ‘Dallas Buyers Club’s Exceptional Protagonist Distort History?

Who Does the History of AIDS Belong To?

With Dallas Buyers Club going wide this weekend and awards buzz building for leads Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, the movie’s perspective on the AIDS crisis is coming under scrutiny, sometimes with positive results. At Sound on Sight, John Oursler situates the film within Hollywood’s long history of telling stories of “the gay plague” through straight protagonists.

Hollywood’s vision of AIDS is one where educated, white, and gay men become sick and where an altruistic, or entrepreneurial, straight man can swoop in and save the day if they so desire. Crass, potentially reductive, but also clearly shown. These things can and have all been true, but they shouldn’t be misconstrued as typical. And while two films don’t justify a trend, certainly not when two decades removed, there are similarities between the ways AIDS is treated in Philadelphia and how it rears its head in Dallas Buyers Club.

At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder, who edits the site’s queer-focused vertical, Outward, takes exception to the charge that the movie whitewashes — or, more accurately, straightens — history by focusing on the (fact-based) story of a McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual man who  set up a subscription based organization to provide lower-cost drugs to HIV-positive patients — including, of course, himself. The idea that “the movie oversimplifies and perhaps focuses on the wrong players in the AIDS crisis, is just bizarre,” Lowder says. “Aren’t narrative films, especially about sweeping historical events, only ever effective when they focus on particular characters and time periods to create a simplistic impression of a remarkably complicated time?'” (The quote comes from an article by Salon’s Daniel D’Addario.) “In the end,” Lowder continues, 

[T]his is really a question of representation: When a particular historical event is thought to “belong” to a certain group, how much freedom do artists have in portraying it? Must movies or other art about AIDS always focus on gay people? Woodroof was a real person who suffered, fought, and eventually died from the disease. He was also straight. Is it then categorically “wrong” or a waste of resources to present his story while countless others remain untold? 

Stories like Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave, which has faced similar criticism for focusing on the exceptional case of a free black man who was sold into slavery and subsequently escaped it, bear a burden of representation which may be unfair but is nonetheless real: Whether or not they proclaim themselves to be the definitive story of their respective eras, they at least run the risk of being taken as such. This is less a problem specific to the films themselves than the context in which they exist. As Oursler puts it, “[C]inema’s conspicuous discursive absence surrounding HIV/AIDS cheapens the thoughtful messages contained in Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club…. You can’t entirely bypass the grieving process and start with healing. Hollywood needs to provide some context if it wants to facilitate cultural atonement.”

The Atlantic‘s Richard Lawson finds a partial solution in, of all places, The Carrie Diaries, the CW series about the young life of Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw. By most accounts, it’s a fairly featherweight show, but it’s set in New York in 1985, specifically in the fashion and publishing industries, where HIV infection reached epidemic proportions. 

As last year’s galvanizing, vital documentary How to Survive a Plague so bracingly illustrated, America’s big cities, especially San Francisco and New York, were angry, scary places in those days. Not for everyone, of course — plenty of people probably didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in the gay corners of the city — but for the kind of people that Carrie Bradshaw hangs out with and aspires to be like, it seems entirely likely that the world they knew would suddenly begin to collapse right around the time of this cheery little summer.

According to Lawson, The Carries Diaries has yet to mention AIDS, but the show’s executive producer told him via email that it’s “definitely going to play a big part in this season.” How that will play out remains to be seen, but in one sense, it’s irrelevant. When it comes to under-represented histories, more is more. 12 Years a Slave is based on a extraordinary story that deserves to be told, but so do the stories of “normal” slaves, those who were born and died in bondage; if there were more of them, it wouldn’t matter so much what kind of story 12 Years told. It may be unjust to hold one film accountable for representing an entire historical era, but it’s also unjust that it has so little competition.

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