HIV/AIDS is a health crisis that has long since reached epidemic proportions, yet many say racial disparities among those affected by the disease have garnered too little attention.
"The story of HIV in black America is about the private consequences of the politics of race," filmmaker Renata Simone says. Her work on the subject spans some 20 years, from the first national series on HIV in 1989, "The AIDS Quarterly with Peter Jennings," to an edition of the PBS network's "Frontline" called "ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America," airing Tuesday night.
Simone's latest endeavor shines a light on how exactly the virus has spread and the ways in which it has "exploited our inability to deal with our problems around race," she says. The film asks, with so much information about HIV and so many years of safe-sex messages being passed on, how can anyone still be uninformed about the disease?
Several minutes into the film we meet Nel, a 63-year-old California retiree and mother of 5 children, 17 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren. Nel's is a heart-wrenching story about finding love in the church, only to marry and find out that her husband, a deacon, had knowingly infected her with HIV.
The film asserts institutional factors are largely to blame for AIDS' devastating effects among blacks -- for example, in prisons, where experts say HIV is being transmitted and carried back to the community by those on parole -- and it focuses largely on the community through which Nel ultimately contracted the disease: the church.
"I think that for a lot of churches, and being a pastor myself, we’ve missed the mark," one Atlanta pastor says in the film. "It’s really difficult for a lot of the older pastors. The political fallout is too much for them to become involved with HIV/AIDS and some of the techniques that we use," he says, techniques like a local needle exchange, or, in some places, conducting HIV tests during church services.
In Houston, Rev. Timothy Sloan went as far as taking a test of his own, in conjunction with the NAACP unveiling its own signature HIV-prevention program at its annual conference this week. For the "Day of Unity," as it's being called, faith leaders were asked to preach about HIV as a social justice issue and to carry out the program's mission through use of a training manual designed specifically to help pastors better confront the disease.
The Day of Unity program is long way from when former NAACP chairman Julian Bond was at the helm. "Was it on my radar? I don’t really know if it was something that I felt I didn’t want to get engaged in, or what the reason was," he says of the AIDS crisis in Simone's film. "I feel badly about myself. It’s a bad reflection on me that I didn’t take a more leading role than I did. I could have; I should have. I was in a position of responsibility. I could have done it, and I didn’t.”
Amid the ongoing institutional divides are the personal stories Simone uses to punctuate the film. From teenage rap duo Tom and Keith, who call themselves “Bornies,” children born with the virus in the early 1990s who have survived after their mothers died; to Jesse, who had to hide his sexuality because of homophobia in his church, community and family; to Jovanté, a high school football player who didn’t realize what HIV meant until it was too late.
And it includes perhaps the most famous HIV patient of all, Magic Johnson, who reiterates that despite critical steps to toward eliminating the disease, he has to take the same care as everyone else.
"ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America," airs Tuesday, July 10 at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings). On Wednesday, July 11 at 2 P.M. EST, HuffPost Black Voices will join producer/writer/director Renata Simone, Black AIDS Institute President Phill Wilson, and Marsha Martin, Director of the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services for a live chat about the film. Please join us and submit any questions you have in the comments section below.
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