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Opinion: Endgame AIDS in Black America: An Exercise in Drama and No Politics

By Kenyon Farrow

July 10, 2012

Kenyon Farrow

Kenyon Farrow

This is an almost stream of conscious blog I was writing while watching the PBS premier of the Frontline Documentary "Endgame: AIDS In Black America."

Remember the PBS hard hitting political documentary series Frontline? You know, the show you can often count on to give you the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that explains, in great painstaking detail, everything from Wall Street's role in foreclosure crisis, the lies that were told to get us into the War in Iraq, how the health insurance industry bought Congress to get the Affordable Care Act?

So imagine that the story of the War in Iraq was told through the stories of the Iraqis, who are describing the day the bombs fell, but the documentary hardly mentions George Bush (Jr or Sr), oil, or 9-11 as the excuse for US invasion? You're left with a story that seems to be about the inexplicable and yet seemingly inevitable mass death and destruction, but is absent of history, political and policy contexts. You'd begin to wonder, why didn't people just move out of the way when the bombs were raining out of the sky?

That's what tonight's Frontline episode, Endgame: AIDS in Black America was like. The documentary was very unlike most Frontline documentaries, which use the personal narratives of people living through a particular issue as a window into the larger political story, where you're left with both a micro and macro understanding of what's going on. Instead, the way the documentary is constructed, heavy on the personal narrative, and with some good analysis by leading AIDS researchers and advocates, lacks any interview or in depth policy, political, or epidemiological analysis with a government official (with ONAP's Greg Millet as the only exception, but he was not a govt official at the onset of the epidemic), from the 1980s, 1990s or now, that asks any tough questions about what the fuck they were doing about Black people with HIV/AIDS.

The kind of activism focuses on the work the women of ACT-UP did for women with AIDS, but doesn't name any of the Black women who were living with the virus who were brave enough to organize and be present in that now famous action on the CDC. And Black trans women for whom the epidemic is particularly high aren't even present AT ALL. And despite the issue of housing and homelessness as a major predictor of HIV infection ... it is completely disappeared, especially in the context of the massive rise in homelessness in the 1980s.

It frames Magic Johnson's announcement as the "wake up call" for Black people, but only brackets the deaths of Max Robinson, Sylvester, Jermaine Stewart, Alvin Ailey and not even mention Eazy E or Rev James Cleveland as other important moments for Black folks in the HIV/AIDS crisis. It also does not talk about Tongues Untied, and the Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs' film deals with HIV/AIDS and was a particular political lightening rod that was national news. It doesn't talk about the work shows like A Different World did, or even artists like Salt-N-Pepa, Prince, or TLC who were talking about safe sex and HIV in their music before the government did anything. Contrary to Frontline's usual style, they did not include an interview from C. Everett Koop or anybody from the CDC during Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, or Bush Jr.'s administrations. No political figures are held accountable for lack of funding, focus, or for instituting regressive policies that caused the HIV epidemic to rise in the Black community.

In fact, political leaders are treated as heroes. George W. Bush's PEPFAR program is celebrated (with a sidenote from the narrator that it had controversial elements) without the many critiques that exist. Instead, we're treated to scenes of the "backwards" South where people still will not eat behind people who have HIV. OK, but the question should be, why in 2012 are people not aware what we know about how AIDS is spread, or better yet, why don't they believe it? The education system in the south being horrible (Alabama is where they focus the southern portion of the film), the disenfranchisement of Black people continually from all most aspects of political life is not raised. The continued federal funding for abstinence only sex education that is heavy on religious tropes and empty on sexual health information is depicted, but no policy makers are interrogated. And yet, homophobia in Black churches is discussed at length.

The narration, slow and intent on evoking too much "emotion" sounds more like a Lifetime movie of the week than what you normally have with the Frontline brand.

The best part of the film was the opening, dispelling the myth that the first gay men who presented as HIV positive when that MMWR was written in June of 1981, were white. Several were Black. The question the film should have been asking, "If white gay men weren't the 'original' community the virus was discovered in the the US, why was it portrayed that way? Who's decision was it to racialize the epidemic as such, and why was Black death always given a perfunctory nod, and not anything to be alarmed about to even mount the national hysteria, though not entirely helpful, at least took place? And making the political actors over the last 30 years account for that.

Or, a better framing could have been to open with the segment of analysis given by Dr. Bob Fullilove, Greg Millet, Phill Wilson and Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick at the very end of the film about Washington, DC, and then diving deeper into why DC's epidemic is one of the worst in the world (if it were a country) and then pulling your happy ass up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and start asking some fucking questions.

Instead, we're treated to a lot of personal narratives that continue to individualize the epidemic, straight black men with HIV are demonized (if for no other reason that they are almost entirely absent as narrators, but instead only show up as the infectors of Black women), and you walk away from this not understanding a single solitary issue about why the epidemic is so bad in Black communities despite no differences in sexual behaviors or drug use among Blacks.

Bette Davis says as Margo Channing in All About Eve, "I detest cheap sentiment." She was talking at the time about music. I could say the same about this film. But in this case, cheap sentiment has really unfortunate political consequences.




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