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Commentaries on this Media!

AIDS Narratives and Televisual Prophecy

by Ethan Tussey

by Jeffrey Bennett for IN MEDIA RES

The prophet is a reoccurring figure in popular films about AIDS. These personas seem prominent especially in productions created for HBO. In And the Band Played On (1993), Dr. Don Francis warns repeatedly of the proliferating threat of AIDS, even as the world around him is marred by sexual and scientific politics. The Normal Heart (2014) finds its Cassandra in Ned Weeks, whose words are ignored consistently, often by the very community he wishes to protect. Angels in America (2003), while different in form and function, directly refers to its protagonist, Prior Walter, as a “prophet” in waiting.

If prophets are beholden more to their message than their audience, these films generally find dramatic tension in those who live in denial of their responsibilities and the threats confronting them. And the Band Played On underscored this tension in numerous antagonists that included a fiery gay mob, a promiscuous French Canadian flight attendant dubiously dubbed “Patient Zero,” the political volleying of ego-driven scientists, and bureaucrats more concerned with the bottom line than with people’s lives. The prophet offers clarity in the midst of confusion and gives narrative intelligibility to the complex politics that underscore historical events.

This form is powerful in Band, which is adapted from journalist Randy Shilts’s bestseller into a small screen experience told from the perspective of scientists. All three communicative forms (prophecy, journalism, science) utilize “truth” as a transparent mechanism for relaying knowledge free of social distraction. Band’s retrospective foresight allows viewers to shake their heads in disbelief as the epidemic unfolds. Not surprisingly, policy makers invoke these early histories of calamity frequently to forward specious measures in the name of public health, including edicts that forbid blood donations among men who have sex with men (a policy unchanged since the early 1980s) and the criminalization of people living with HIV. Band was part of a larger discourse that cemented queers as living in denial of their ravenous tendencies. In contrast to those who engage in reasoned deliberation, queer bodies are situated repeatedly as emotional, biased, and ultimately contagious. In many realms, that image plays on today.

HIV/AIDS and Angels in America

A clip from Angels in America

from Angels in America (2003)
Creator: Tony Kushner
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey