For over 25 years, William Brawner kept his HIV-Positive
status a secret from everyone in his life except for a few close family
members. After engaging in risky sexual behavior as a popular student on the
campus of Howard University, he eventually went on to expose his secret as an
adult, and suffered the fallout of reactions from his classmates, friends and
Brawner’s experience is captured in “25 To Life,”
the new feature documentary directed by Mike Brown, which AFFRM brings to
theaters nationwide on World AIDS Day, December 1. He made time to speak with
S&A about the movie and his life as an HIV/AIDS educator at Haven Youth
Center in Philadelphia.
JAI TIGGETT: The film
is focused on your health and diagnosis, but also the health and relationships
with your family. How’s everyone doing today?
Everybody is fine. At the time I was filming the movie I was 25 years Positive.
Now I’ve been Positive for 34 years, so a lot has changed. Unfortunately [wife]
Bridgette and I are no longer together, but we’re still close friends and our
son is doing very well.
Haven Youth Center is thriving. We’ve opened up some new
programs and we’re serving a lot more people. We now have a camp, the same camp
that I went to as a child, and we work with a lot more youth than we did when
we first started.
As far as my health, it’s good. I spend so much time doing
everything else that I probably should take more time and focus on that, but
I’m still undetectable, which is a blessing.
Life” is a completely personal film. What made you say yes to making it?
The film came about because I give a lot of speeches across
the country, and I wanted to make a five-minute snippet of a day in the life of
someone being HIV-Positive. Just something to play before I would give a
I called my roommate at the time, who was getting his
masters degree from NYU. And I said Mike, I just need to know what kind of
camera I need to buy to make this look good. He gave me some expensive camera that
cost a thousand bucks and I’m like, Mike I can’t afford that. I’m not doing
that. The next day he called me and said listen, I have an idea of how we can
make this way bigger than what you’re thinking. And here we are.
Tell me about the
filming process. You and the director knew each other, but what was it like
sharing everything on camera?
It was very hard. At first it’s difficult to be in front of
a camera 24/7. You’re tripping over chords and equipment. But after a while I
kinda got used to it and they became like a piece of the furniture. Sometimes I
was like, just shut the camera off. I can’t believe I said that and I can’t
believe you guys actually got that, I can’t believe that I’ve been this
vulnerable. It was difficult.
There were years
spent filming. When you finally saw the finished documentary – saw your story
unfold onscreen and saw everything that friends and family had to say in the
film – what was your reaction?
Well the first time I saw it, I didn’t know everyone that
had been interviewed and what they had to say. I hadn’t seen much of anything
so I had no idea what was going to be in it. And all the problems that I had, I
remember going through them. I saw how confused I was, how angry I was.
Whatever emotions I had while I was living those moments, I felt like I relived
them when I watched the film for the first time.
There’s a scene in the movie where I’m trying to pick out
the clothes that I’m going to wear to Howard University’s homecoming. That was
a troubling time for me, and to live it is one thing, but to see it was just
like, oh my God. I was so confused, so lost. Like how am I even supposed to
dress? And I remember those emotions and I’m just thankful that I’m in a better
There’s a big
emphasis on popularity and appearances as the film shows you growing into
maturity. How much of that was influenced by your Positive status, and the idea
that people might not accept you if they knew?
I definitely think that a lot of my urge to be popular was
maybe a cover-up because people really didn’t know who I was. I knew a lot of
people, but I was always so scared to get deep with anyone because you can only
go so far if you’re not going to tell them everything about yourself. This was
a major thing that I kept to myself, so I really wasn’t able to build
long-lasting friendships at the time. And I think the popularity was just a way
for me to feel socially accepted and not so isolated.
There’s a scene in
the film where you’re on the radio talking about HIV/AIDS education and getting
tested. Kevin Hart is on the same show, and he mentions how he doesn’t want to
know his status. What it’s like for you to hear things like that, knowing that
you yourself used to engage in risky behavior when it came to the virus?
My mission, my purpose and my passion now is to educate
people on HIV and AIDS. And to hear that people still don’t care, burns. It
hurts me because it’s such a major issue and people want to act like it doesn’t
exist. With [that scene], we spent all this time trying to educate people and
we’re getting good feedback on the show and then, as popular as he is, to say
something like that, completely swept everything under the rug. It makes the
problem worse to act like it doesn’t exist, and then people don’t take the
proper precautions, the proper medications, and it increases the stigma.
What’s your response
to that as a counselor?
Well let me tell you, Haven is the program that I used to
dream about when I was going through side effects of medication in my bed alone
because there was no one to talk to. So I try to make myself into the person
that I wish I had seen. Maybe I wouldn’t have made some of the decisions that I
made if I had a mentor, a role model, someone I could touch. Magic Johnson was
there, but before he had HIV he was an NBA superstar and he was untouchable.
So I try to make myself into this person who could help a
younger me when I was going through that. I tell them the truth about my story
– the whole truth, just how I tell it in the film. And I talk about how lives
were impacted, how I felt when I was doing it, and how I feel now. I let them
know that the decisions that you make in regards to your diagnosis are going to
follow you for the rest of your life.
“25 To Life” opens in theaters across the country on December
1. Find show times and tickets HERE.