By Brian Mullin
Earlier this month, Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club and never mentioned HIV/AIDS once, even though the prize (and the revitalization of his career) came from playing one of the many millions of real people who have died in the epidemic. Instead McConaughey took time to mention God, his family and his ultimate hero: himself.
One might chalk this up to actorly self-regard – why should we expect him to ‘get political’ anyway? Gone are the days when red ribbons were seen on every awards show. There’s even been recent news that a promising gene therapy might eventually combat the virus without dependency on drugs. Dallas Buyers Club is set in 1985. The worst of the AIDS crisis is behind us, right?
In fact, McConaughey’s solipsism is evidence of a troubling ideology that can be found at the heart of the film itself, and a wider historical blindness about the real battle against AIDS.
The protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodruff, is depicted as a libertarian profiteer, distrustful of all state authority. Broadly simplifying the development of HIV medications and airbrushing the real Woodruff’s complicated sexuality, the film depicts all of Ron’s dealings with the medical establishment making him sicker, while his privately smuggled drugs, it is implied, prolong his and others’ life chances. Most perniciously, though, the film’s tagline ‘Sometimes it takes a hustler to change the world’ suggests to a largely uninformed public that it was private enterprise, rather than collective action, that brought about real change in the fight against the disease. Dallas Buyers Club is an AIDS film that the Tea Party – and Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – might approve of. Is it any wonder that its lead actor has little regard for anyone but himself?
In the margins of the film (a poster stuck on a wall, a brief news clip on the TV) are glimpses of the work of ACT-UP, the diverse, multi-ethnic coalition of activists who not only fought to ‘Get drugs into bodies’ but also rallied around the mantra ‘Health care is a human right.’ ACT-UP was founded in the initial height of the crisis by members who were male and female, straight and gay, infected and not. Arguing for a broad, intersectional battle to reform health care and to advocate for the dignity and agency of HIV+ people, ACT-UP’s message needs to be heard now more than ever – not just in the US where the public/private hodgepodge of Obamacare staggers into existence but also in the UK where the NHS, once proudly ‘free at the point of access,’ is under increasing threat.
It’s heartening, therefore, to see a resurgence in ACT-UP activity around the world, including here in London. This is thanks in part to powerful, grassroots films like United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP (not nominated for an Oscar) that have educated a new generation about the movement. It’s also been prompted by rage and disbelief that, thirty years after the onset of the epidemic, infection rates amongst young, gay men, especially in ethnic minority populations, are again on the rise. We must not historicise AIDS, or turn it into cheap sentiment designed to win awards: plenty of people in both the developed and developing world are becoming infected every day, due in large part to a sense that this crisis is a thing of the past.
In the spirit of the movement’s original goals, ACT-UP London’s current fight is not narrowly defined, and does not even centre directly around HIV. We have joined with groups like the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National AIDS Trust in opposition to Clauses 33 and 34 in the UK Government’s proposed Immigration Bill, which would institute charges for primary and emergency medical care. On the face of it, most non-migrant UK residents would not be directly affected by these changes; some of our allies in the LGBT community have even asked why we’ve chosen this cause. And yet, we stand in solidarity with opponents of austerity and advocates for immigrants.
We believe that any measures requiring the Home Office to monitor medical care should be re-thought. When it comes to HIV and other communicable diseases, we do not want to discourage anyone (particularly an at-risk population) from seeking out medical care. The result will be more cases of HIV that remain undiagnosed and untreated for longer, resulting in even higher rates of infection, and absolutely no cost savings. The virus doesn’t discriminate based on residency status, and immigrant health cannot be separated from the health of the general public.
The Immigration Bill is currently in committee stage before the House of Lords and will be debated in the coming weeks. We are committed to direct action and public awareness-raising to push the Lords into recommending removal of the misguided clauses. Further facts on the Bill are available in the NAT’s briefing paper.
The battles we pick are important. With antiretroviral medication readily available to UK residents, it’s easy to become complacent, safe in the assurance that we have access to care, and to passively wait for scientists to deliver a ‘cure’. Why should we worry if vulnerable people in our midst are burdened with charges, or made fearful to visit the doctor? We must remember our own indebtedness: effective antiretrovirals were developed thanks to the pressure that ACT-UP and other activists exerted on the government and pharmaceutical companies, insisting that all HIV+ people deserved a voice in their own medical care. We don’t want anyone living with HIV to be fearful or silent. As the old slogan goes, ‘Silence = Death.’
The Conservatives had their own slogan, one they should be held to: ‘We’re all in this together.’ It is solidarity, not self-interest, that will bring an end to the AIDS crisis and we must not let our public Health Service become a ‘Buyers Club.’
Brian Mullin is a writer & theatre-maker, as well as an organizer with ACT UP London.