Tragedy and Triumph
The films that changed our attitudes and response to the fight against AIDS.
As we celebrate the resilience of our community and remember those we’ve lost on World AIDS Day, we want to look back at a few notable movies and shows that have changed our attitudes and response to the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Holding the Man (2015)
This intimate, true depiction of Australian couple Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo’s 15-year relationship first appeared as Timothy’s 1995 memoir of the same name. Twenty years later, the movie adaptation received international acclaim for its unflinching look at the unfolding AIDS crisis and its effect on countless gay couples. There is romance, heartbreak, friendship, and humor in this couple’s uniquely human story. Watch the trailer.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Considered to be one of the most poignant documentaries on AIDS activism, How to Survive a Plague reveals the unrelenting determination of the ACT UP and TAG members who stood up to the pharmaceutical industry and government officials. Many of the breakthroughs in lifesaving HIV treatments is a direct result of the organizing and protesting that these incredible groups did throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Directed by one of the first journalists who covered the epidemic, this inspirational documentary is a must-watch for anyone who needs to be reminded of the queer community’s power and resilience. Watch the trailer.
The Walt Disney Company was actually in dire straits during the 1980s, before a little film called The Little Mermaid transformed Disney into a media powerhouse. Little Mermaid lyricist Howard Ashman, who was largely responsible for the film’s success, was a genius whose life was cut short by AIDS complications. This documentary offers an intimate depiction of his life’s work and the colleagues whose own lives and careers Ashman made possible. With a star-studded cast and a beautiful soundtrack by longtime collaborator Alan Menken, this film is sure to tug at your heartstrings and fill you with nostalgia for all things Disney.
Watch the trailer.
Our Sons (1991)
Starring the iconic Julie Andrews and the dashing Hugh Grant, this made-for-TV movie is a hidden gem. As the title implies, the film focuses on the mothers of two men whose loving relationship ends in tragedy as one of them lands in the hospital with AIDS complications. The complicated relationships between parents and their children are depicted with empathy, even when homophobia enters the picture. There is nuance to the characters within a story that is all too familiar to many people—especially the mothers whose gay sons were taken from them too soon. Watch the trailer.
This rom-com milestone tackled the complicated topic of dating in the age of AIDS—and did so with a charmingly comedic script. Set in New York City, the film follows Jeffrey as he struggles with his fear of contracting HIV whenever love comes knocking at his door. Featuring the likes of Sir Patrick Stuart and gay icon Nathan Lane in supporting roles, Jeffrey signaled a cultural shift in attitudes about HIV-positive characters. This funny and romantic film offers audiences the valuable lesson that being gay and HIV-positive no longer equates with heartbreak and grief. Watch the trailer.
Queer as Folk (2000 and 2022)
This British hit series has been adapted twice for American audiences, and each adaptation has boasted a diverse cast of characters whose lives capture the queer experience of its generation. Both the 2000 and 2022 Queer as Folk remakes feature HIV-positive main characters and overarching storylines that include marriage, adoption, being out at school and work, and the ever-present celebration of queer sex in the face of AIDS. Whether you wish to revisit the Y2K era through Ben and Hunter’s stories, or peek into the vibrant lives of young Gen Z characters with Mingus’ story, there’s something for everyone here. Watch the trailer, QaF 2000, here and QaF 2022, here.
This iconic and groundbreaking show, which puts trans actors of color at the forefront, also features some of the best depictions of life with HIV in the 1980s and ’90s. Set in New York City’s underground ballroom scene, Blanca’s story begins with her HIV diagnosis. But instead of hurling her into a self-destructive spiral, the news inspires her to live each day as if it’s her last, and create a meaningful legacy that impacts more lives than she ever expected. If you haven’t watched this show yet, you’ll want to find out why everyone has fallen in love with Blanca’s story—and why it’s so important to keep empowering intersectional queer voices. Watch the trailer.
This article appears in the December 2022 edition of OutSmart.