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Documentary ‘5B’ Paints Moving Portrait of The Unsung Heroes of The AIDS Crisis

The historic film is in theaters now.

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Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a patient (photo by Ken Kobré).

June is Pride month, the time each year when the LGBTQ community celebrates its heroes and sheroes.

In New York City, a monument will be erected in Greenwich Village to honor transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were at the vanguard of the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.

In theaters across the country, some of the quieter, unsung heroes from the 1980s will be memorialized: the nurses in the country’s first AIDS unit, who went to extraordinary lengths to care for the dying and to pioneer a compassionate model of care that was widely studied and eventually accepted as the national standard.

Although focused on San Francisco, the documentary 5B paints a gripping portrait of the AIDS crisis nationally. The film takes its place alongside the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague as a key documentation of one of the darkest periods in American history.

Last month, 5B premiered at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival in France to positive reviews, and it opened the LA Pride Festival on June 7. Actress Julianne Moore, an HIV activist, has championed the documentary. The film opens in Houston on June 14.

The documentary takes its name from San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 5B, where AIDS patients were cared for. It is directed by Dan Krauss (twice nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Documentary category) and Paul Haggis, who won the Best Picture Oscar in 2006 for Crash, which he wrote and directed. Krauss and Haggis skillfully weave the individual stories of the nurses, patients, family members, and friends into a compelling larger narrative about the arc of the AIDS crisis. They are fortunate to be able to draw upon a deep trove of 1980s video shot in Ward 5B, when local TV stations did extensive reporting on AIDS care at San Francisco General.

The films begins in the wide-open world of San Francisco in the 1970s, when out, buff gay men enthusiastically embraced the sexual revolution. As the first cases of a “gay cancer” had begun to emerge in 1981, so little was known about how the disease was spread that healthcare workers lived in terror of being infected. They wore uniforms resembling space suits and helmets when caring for AIDS patients, to minimize the possibility of airborne infection. A poll conducted in the 1980s showed that 54% of Americans believed that people with HIV should be quarantined.

Cliff Morrison, a gay man who trained as a nurse and was the director of the forensic psychiatry program at San Francisco General, was incensed by the fact that AIDS patients were effectively being quarantined. Working with a team of nurses, he took it upon himself to develop the first special-care unit in the nation for people living with HIV.

“It made me angry. We have to do something,” he recalls in the film. “People were like, ‘You’re probably going to get AIDS, and you’re probably going to die. I might have some anxiety about this, but I am more pissed off and angry than I am scared. We decided that if we can’t save these folks, we’re going to touch them.”

For the nurses on the ward, it required a complete shift in mindset.   

“You have to get out of the mode that you are here for curing people, and really get into the mode that you’re here to care for people,” remembers Mary Magee, an idealistic young nurse on Ward 5B. “This was a tangible thing you could do for them: wash them, put moisturizer on them. You were allowed to love your patients.”

The documentary expands its lens to take in other key elements of the AIDS crisis: attacks by right-wing homophobic politicians such as former congressman William Dannemeyer, the criminal negligence of the Reagan administration in failing to address the AIDS crisis as it exploded into an epidemic, and the toxic homophobia in American society that the AIDS crisis both exposed and normalized.

Ward 5B patient Shane Harjo and his mother Janet (photo by Mary Asbury).

The film ends on a more hopeful note in the late 1990s, when drugs had emerged that would save the lives of many people with AIDS. Some individuals depicted in the documentary who were perilously close to death receive an unexpected, almost miraculous reprieve.

One of the most compelling figures in the film is Rita Rockett, a vibrantly joyous heterosexual woman with an over-the-top energy and exuberance. For sixteen years, she volunteered to prepare and serve brunch every other Sunday for the patients on 5B, providing friendship, human touch, and kisses on the cheeks of patients, some of whom had been abandoned by friends and families. She would come to 5B in flamboyant outfits to entertain the patients, sometimes by roller-skating through the ward.   

In the film, she observes, “So much of what you do in life is not what you say or do—it’s how you make people feel.”

5B serves as an uplifting testament to the decency and bravery of a team of nurses, doctors, and volunteers—both straight and gay—who stepped courageously forward in a time of crisis and made a profound difference.

5B is screening in Houston theaters now. To find a show time, go here


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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

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