Gay Cinema: AIDS Impact on Gay Documentaries

AIDS had a huge impact on cinema, both narrative features and documentaries:

The Times of Harvey Milk

Bob Epstein and Friedman’s two Oscar-winning films, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), helped prepare the background for feature movies about AIDS. The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the life, rise to political power and murder of Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials. Milk’s story parallels the story of the modern gay rights movement, specifically the heady times of the 1970s in probably the most organized gay community in the world, San Francisco’s Castro district. As a mobilizing symbol, the gay community couldn’t ask for a more potent representative than Milk.

With elements of both tragedy and nostalgia for a unique period in gay and lesbian history, Milk’s story is chronologically told. Unsuccessful in his first attempt at a City Supervisor seat, Milk eventually won after the city’s redistricting. His campaign and triumphant victory are related by a former campaign aide, who tells of his kindness, generosity, and insistence on a diverse campaign staff. The footage of his victory shows Milk and his supporters react with both disbelief and unmitigated joy.

The tragedy that follows is foreshadowed as we learn of Dan White, the fellow San Francisco Supervisor who murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Despite White’s confession and overwhelming evidence of intent, he is given a sentence of only 7 years. San Francisco’s gay community is catapulted into a state of grief and rage that produces a series of riots at City Hall. The scene of the candlelight march held for Milk after his murder is especially poignant. The Times of Harvey Milk is a piece of history and a tribute to an endearing figure in the gay rights movement.

Common Threads

A documentary about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Common Threads tells the stories of five people who have died from AIDS or are in varying stages of HIV infection and the impact of their illness on their lives and on those of their loved ones. The individual stories of gay men, an African-American I.V. drug-user, and a 12-year-old hemophiliac are interwoven with other pieces of history marking the progress of the AIDS epidemic, photographs, newsprint, videos and radio clips. This patchwork style highlights each individual story’s similarities and differences and provides an effective metaphor for the film’s subject, the AIDS quilt.

Common Threads popularizes the issue of AIDS through real lives and painful experiences. Statistics of AIDS’ human toll are presented, but instead of being asked to consider statistics–which are overwhelming–the viewers are presented with actual people. The film unfolds the size of the epidemic, making clear its scope and effects on both personal and collective levels. This is crystallized in the final scene, in which the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the entire AIDS quilt on display in Washington D.C. That each of the thousands of panels represents a life as unique as the five just witnessed, is heartbreaking. After years of denying the possibility of a viable dramatic entertainment about AIDS, in 1993 the epidemic was everywhere. A subject once considered untouchable, “suddenly” surfaced in a quartet of diverse and compelling projects: HBO’s adaptation of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, the first major Hollywood movie about AIDS, a French film, Savage Nights, and even an AIDS musical, John Greyson’s Zero Patience. Unlike earlier works, such as the TV-made melodramas, The Ryan White Story and An Early Frost, which treated AIDS as a tragic tale of courage and nobility, the new efforts viewed the epidemic in a larger, more realistic context.

The dilemma faced by filmmakers was how to respond to the devastating AIDS crisis Too much “drama” and emotion might seem an indulgence, an intrusion on feelings of grief. On the other hand, too calm and lucid a response might be perceived as dignified but not entirely honest. A movie about AIDS can easily slip into sensationalism and obviousness. Not surprisingly, many filmmakers have taken the middle road, aiming to humanize a tragedy that initially evoked fear and hostility.


If you want to know more about gay directors and gay films, please read my book:

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).