Tuesday, January 27, 2015

AIDS and the Living Narrative of Philadelphia

While working on some #tbt ideas (because I'm so hip and current), I was browsing Netflix looking for some older films set in and around Philadelphia. Then I though, "huh, what about Philadelphia?" It was filmed exclusively in the city, plus both the title and Bruce Springsteen's Oscar winning theme share the city's namesake. 

Less than five minutes into the movie, I found what I was looking for. Scenes from a past somewhere between what we know now and the history books. But just as quickly, I found a reason to revisit this movie for more than its background. 

It's a perfect movie.

I last saw Philadelphia 21 years ago. As a closeted teenager, I remember anxiously sitting on the couch next to my parents, trying to fight back my tears as my mom, even my dad, shed theirs'. I heard them whisper my cousin's name, "Sammy..." 

He had died just two months earlier.

Watching it again as an adult, it didn't remind me of the closet. Instead, it brought back the emotional roller coaster I would experience during the height of the epidemic. More than 140,000 Americans would reportedly be lost to AIDS when I was in college. With those deaths came fear, sorrow, but also supportive camaraderie with many wonderful strangers. 

I learned a lot very quickly.

At face value, Philadelphia is a sad movie. But beneath the surface it's something else. To those dealing with AIDS in 1993, Philadelphia wasn't a movie with a sad ending, it was their unfortunate story with a bittersweet purpose.

For the first time in the disease's 11 year history, statistics were finally being given a face. Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and a host of other Hollywood celebrities showed America a real disease afflicting real people. 

Philadelphia wasn't just a movie, it was a true story that played out on our city's stage. Over the last two decades a rumor has periodically surfaced regarding the production of the film, claiming that within two years of its release, more than 40 cast members had died from AIDS. It's not a legend, and today the number is likely 53. 

ActionAIDS of Philadelphia was sourced by director Jonathan Demme to cast 53 extras for the film. 

In 1995, Clifford Rothman wrote an homage to the 53 HIV-positive extras in the film and the 43 who had already passed. Similar in spirit, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed its own moving article prior to the movie's release. 

The national dialogue was evolving and the mainstream media was showing the general public a side of AIDS they didn't know, one of unbearable suffering and grieving families. 

Therese Frare's photograph of David Kirby's deathbed in 1990 is historically referred to as the "picture that changed the face of AIDS." Published in both Life magazine and by Benetton, the heartbreaking picture of Kirby with his weeping father elicited outrage, but for the first time, it also found empathy from many who had no personal understanding of the disease. 

AIDS had been humanized. 
The "picture that changed the face of AIDS." David Kirby with his father, mother, and sister, by Therese Frare.

Salt-n-Pepa's 1991 single, Let's Talk About Sex, came with an alternate version titled Let's Talk About AIDS. The music video's message isn't subtle, and it worked. 

People talked. 

By 1996, the AIDS Quilt made its last annual appearance on the National Mall until it would return once more in 2012. 

These articles, photographs, memorials, and songs offered the public a firsthand look at an epidemic - a public plagued with misconceptions about a community hiding in the gritty corners of our cities. It seemed - finally - that the public was ready to accept that AIDS was real.

Philadelphia is part of the broad story that AIDS continues to tell. At the time of its release, ActionAIDS serviced 500 HIV-positive men and women. Today it services about 5000, a testament to early detection, better meds, and compassion. But it also proves that the epidemic won't be over until the last cocktail is prescribed.

39 million people have died from AIDS since the epidemic began. But with the recognition of the disease's humanity comes the understanding that AIDS also afflicts the uninfected. There is no way to calculate the untold number of friends and family who've buried their loved ones. 

Until recently, there was little hope that a cure would be found. Treatments are improving, and advocacy is getting it to those in need. HIV-positive men and women are living full, normal lives. But the cost isn't limited to money. These drugs come with side effects. 

However, in the last few years, research in gene therapy has shifted interest back towards curing the disease. Now, more than three decades later, there seems to be more promise than ever that AIDS will be gone within most of our lifetimes. With strides coming from our own Temple University and Penn Medicine, perhaps Philadelphia's living story will return for its final chapter. 

It isn't over, and you can help:

Mazzoni Center
Philly AIDS Thrift

No comments:

Post a Comment