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10 Acclaimed HIV Films to Watch After It's a Sin

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It's a Sin, the new series exploring the 1980s AIDS crisis from prolific creator Russell T Davies, left me wanting to learn more. The decade-spanning five-episode series is currently streaming on HBO Max in the U.S. and All4 in the U.K. The show covered a tremendous amount of ground from the conspiracy theories surrounding the virus's origin, the oppression and stigma around HIV and homosexuality, the anxiety of getting tested (having to wait six+ weeks for test results!), and perhaps most profoundly, the relationships created during such a challenging time.

But covering everything of importance during this decade proved challenging in a limited series, and it left viewers, including myself, asking if there will be a season two. Sadly, the likelihood of a direct follow-up is slim. While rumors of the show's fate continue to circulate, check out these movies that faithfully and respectfully cover the subject of HIV and AIDS.

And The Band Played On (1993)
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode (The Best of Times, Turner & Hooch, and Tomorrow Never Dies) and based on the bestselling book by journalist Randy Shilts, this enlightening television film docudrama tells the discovery of the disease we now know as AIDS. One of the more memorable lines from the film that sums up the initial years of the epidemic is, "The gay press calls it gay pneumonia or gay cancer, and the straight press doesn't mention it all." While the ensemble cast, including Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Ian McKellen, Lily Tomlin, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, and Anjelica Huston, are all remarkable, no one explicitly sticks out, with the focus staying on the AIDS crisis and not the A-list actors. 

Where to watch: HBO Max

Philadelphia (1993)
At the time of this film's release, there was a tremendous reluctance from major Hollywood studios to produce a film about the AIDS crisis. Philadelphia is the first major studio movie to tackle the epidemic head-on and this classic contribution to gay cinema stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. For his role as Andrew Beckett (inspired in part by attorney Geoffrey Bowers), Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1994. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

How To Survive A Plague (2012)
This critically-acclaimed documentary film tells the story of the early years of the AIDS epidemic and activist groups ACT UP and TAG's efforts during this time. In his directorial debut, journalist David France, who covered the epidemic from the beginning, uses more than 700 hours of archival footage, including news coverage, interviews, demonstrations, meetings, and conferences taken by ACT UP members. It also includes the ACT UP demonstration during a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989, which inspired the notable protest scene in Ryan Murphy's FX drama series, Pose. This protest of more than 4,500 people remains one of the largest ever staged against the Catholic church. The film is dedicated to Doug Gould, France's partner, who died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

The Ryan White Story (1989)
Based on the real-life teenaged hemophilic Ryan White, who contracted HIV from a tainted blood treatment, this film follows his battle for his right to attend public school. While suffering from the disease, White and his family bravely fought against bigots who saw AIDS as some kind of heavenly punishment against gay men and intravenous drug users (two of the largest groups initially stricken with the disease). His story inspired President George H.W. Bush to sign a critical and bipartisan bill into law known as "The Ryan White CARE Act." This act provided more than $2 billion to help Americans battling HIV/AIDS. 

Where to watch: Netflix

Fire in the Blood (2012)
This documentary examines Africa's AIDS crisis and the intentional obstruction from pharmaceutical companies to make antiretroviral drugs more affordable. Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt narrated the film on a pro bono basis because he believed the story and subject matter was important to share. Director Dylan Mohan Gray dedicated the film to the 10 million+ people in Africa and across the developing world who died of AIDS because the low-cost life-saving medication desperately needed was denied to them. 

Where to watch: Netflix

The Normal Heart (2014)
Directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Pose, American Horror Story) and written by AIDS activist Larry Kramer, this film focuses on the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, between 1981 and 1984. Kramer's play of the same name debuted in the 1980s, but Murphy stated he made the film adaptation decades later due to concerns that people born after the early AIDS epidemic would not remember its lessons. The stellar cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, and Jonathan Groff. 

Where to watch: HBO Max

Parting Glances (1986)
Parting Glances, considered a pioneering piece of gay cinema, is about the loyalties of friendship and romantic love's vicissitudes. The New York-set story centers on two lovers, Michael and Robert, and Michael's former flame, Nick (memorably performed by Steve Buscemi), who's dying of AIDS. Heroic, romantic, and surprisingly funny in parts, the story trades empty sentiment for authentic emotion. Director Bill Sherwood died of complications from AIDS in 1990 without ever completing another film. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video or Tubi

Life Support (2007)
A touching, thought-provoking and underrated film, Life Support follows Queen Latifah's character, Ana Wallace, who was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade earlier. As she devotes her life to an HIV outreach group, she tries to rebuild her relationship with her teenage daughter, whom she lost custody of to her mother 11 years ago due to her drug addiction. Nelson George directed the film, basing Latifah's character on his sister. The cast is rounded out by Anna Deavere Smith, Wendell Pierce, Evan Ross, and Tracee Ellis Ross. Jamie Foxx adorns the movie as a co-producer. 

Where to watch: HBO Max

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
This intense drama based on the true story about the desperate search for treatment in the early days of AIDS stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof. Upon diagnosis, Woodroof was initially given 30 days to live. In the mid-1980s, while HIV was remarkably misunderstood and extremely stigmatized, McConaughey's character smuggles unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas. As he establishes the "Dallas Buyers Club" and distributes them to fellow AIDS patients, he faces resistance from the Food and Drug Administration. Both Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto play fictional composite roles that the writers created after conducting interviews with AIDS patients, activists, and doctors. Critics have praised McConaughey and Leto's performances, who received the Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, at the 86th Academy Awards. Ronald Woodroof died of an AIDS-related illness in September 1992, seven years after being diagnosed. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video or Peacock

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017)
This drama centers on the AIDS activism of ACT UP in 1990s France. Director Robin Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot drew upon their personal experiences with ACT UP in telling this story. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it had its world premiere, the movie won critical acclaim and four awards, including the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious prize of the festival. This movie recounts beautifully and accurately an era in which people died in part because governments agreed that this virus was punishment for gays and their abhorrent behavior and thus refused to consider it a pandemic that deserved urgent attention. Critics of ACT UP deemed their tactics as extreme, and this movie showcases the humanity of these activists, whose backs were up against a wall. Even those who consider themselves well-versed in the history of AIDS should watch BPM as it acts as a cinematic buttress against complacency.

Where to watch: Hulu

Alan Diamond is a freelance journalist. 

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