(Note: there are some spoilers here!)
Who is "Dallas Buyers Club" for?
It's not for anyone who identifies as LGBT. The movie is resolutely not about them. Is it for homophobes, who can learn from the movie's example that maybe you can give someone a hug and everything will be OK? Doubtful.
I think the movie is made for the kinds of people a lot of movies are made for: the (mostly straight) Hollywood types, especially the ones who vote at the Oscars. You know them. They're the ones who gave "Crash" all those awards, remember? They're also the ones who, if all the predictions are right, are about to hand the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. For everyone's sake, I really hope they don't.
This is a film in which the hero of the AIDS movement is a straight bigot who helps educate all of the people he once despised about how to treat themselves and fight the system. In its haste to canonize Ron Woodroof, McConaughey's character, it almost entirely erases the real saints of that fight: the men and women of the LGBT community who saved their own lives.
Jenji Kohan, creator of "Orange Is The New Black," has forthrightly said that her main character for that series was a rich, white, blond "Trojan Horse" to ease presumably white audiences into a show that was actually about working-class people of color. Watching "Dallas Buyers Club," you see what that show would have been like if you only got as far as the Trojan Horse. Woodroof is vividly drawn; almost everyone else is an afterthought.
Briefly: "Dallas Buyers Club"--based on a true story-- is about Woodroof, a homophobic womanizer who, after contracting AIDS thanks to a variety of drug-and-sex-related behavior, is stunned to find that the medicine the US government is pushing is no good for him and goes about setting up a "buyers club" for drugs from other countries. Along the way, he becomes business partners with Rayon (played by Leto) a trans woman, and fights the system, and stands up for the little guy, and learns to accept those dirty gays, etc, etc.
Never mind that many, many, many, many, many people have said that Ron Woodroof was bisexual or, at the very least, not homophobic in real life. "Dallas Buyers Club" prefers a less complicated tale.
The film cannot emphasize enough just how straight Ron is. It starts with him having loud, angry sex with two women. It travels with him to strip clubs, films his assignations with prostitutes. "Super-macho dude" is practically emblazoned across the screen.
There are no similar moments of queer love, or even lust. Rayon is that classic Hollywood trope, the sexless minority whose only function is to generate our sympathy and teach the hero how to feel again. For good measure, she's also the subject of repeated lectures by Ron on how to live her life. There's also a classic scene where he defends her honor in a supermarket, just like a good man's man should. Rayon even dies at the proper moment. Leto is moving and funny in the role, but it's a thinly written part, and one that carries a whiff of "look what I'm doing" around with it. (While we're on the subject, McConaughey is also effective, but it's a performance that gets by mostly on his considerable charm. I've been mystified by all the critics dubbing his turn a "revelation.")
Queer people are mostly held at a distance throughout the film; besides his friendship with Rayon, Ron's acceptance of them is treated as comedy more than anything else (look! He's in a gay bar! Hilarious). More gallingly, we see his victimization as the prominent example of the discrimination people with AIDS went through. There's an infuriating scene where Ron goes back to his home to find 'Faggot Blood' scrawled on the outside. "I still live here!" he screams. There are no similar passages featuring people who, in all likelihood, were in far more danger than he.
It is certainly not a distortion of history to note that straight people also got AIDS. Nor is it wrong to celebrate straight people who fought in the AIDS movement. But "Dallas Buyers Club" resembles nothing so much as the endless stream of movies about the civil rights movement that, at their core, are about white people's problems. (We all recall "The Help," though it would be nicer if we didn't.) There's always a sense in these films that white (or straight) audiences won't be able to handle a story without some buffer to help them through, as if, without people they can "recognize," they will recoil. In 2014, is it too much to ask that that notion be reexamined -- or that we reevaluate our idea of what a "normal" audience member looks like?
The AIDS movement is one of the most remarkable and awe-inspiring civil rights struggles of at least the past 100 years. It was a movement in which oppressed and reviled people, in the midst of a pandemic, forced the world to both care about them and to take their medical crisis seriously. To put it mildly, there is a story there, and it's not a story that's actually been told with too much regularity by mainstream Hollywood.
"Dallas Buyers Club" feels like a movie from another time, one that tiptoed around that story with trepidation. I sincerely wish that the Oscars don't make the mistake of treating it like a movie that's right for the time we live in now.
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