So while Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were winning Oscars for playing characters who died from AIDS, some young black man in an urban city became infected with the virus. Another young woman in a village in Swaziland got infected after being raped by a man who didn't know he had the HIV virus. Oh, and there was some young white kid who came from a good family but somehow got involved in drugs, well, he injected himself with the virus last night. But yes, let's talk about Leto's hair or how brave it was for McConaughey to play this part ("OMG, he lost all that weight... with the help of a nutritionist.").
I won't dispute the fine work that McConaughey and Leto did in Dallas Buyers Club, but I can't shake the feeling that their intentions as artists were more about winning Oscars and less about telling the story of people dying from AIDS. Yes, Leto did honor those that had died in his speech (after plugging his band, 30 Seconds to Mars); and McConaughey, well, he got a pass at honoring AIDS victims in his speech thanks to Leto (what a bromance). What could they have said? I don't know, maybe that...
- In 2012, there were 35.3 million people living with HIV.
- Blacks represent 12% of the U.S. population, but 44% of new HIV infections.
- Infections of men who have sex with men rose 12% from 2008 to 2010.
- 1 in 6 people infected with the HIV virus in the United States don't know that they have it.
- Findings from a meta-analysis of 29 published studies showed that 27.7% of transgender women tested positive for HIV infection.
I also don't subscribe to the argument that as straight actors they were somehow less able to play these roles, though I do feel like there are many fine trans actresses that could have played Leto's role. My issue is that it feels like these roles, and really the only reason this film was made, was to A) To give them an in with the gays; B) Offer them range so that reporters can write about "comebacks"; and C) Win them Oscars -- so basically not talk about AIDS at all.
Lately there's been a lot of discussion within the gay press about art representing us as a community. The bulk of this discussion has been centered around the HBO show Looking. One side says that the show only portrays a small, rather vapid, portion of the community; while the other side says that it's an expression of gay life in San Francisco. Frankly, I don't buy either of these arguments. I don't watch TV or movies to see myself on screen (I have Instagram for that), I watch to be entertained, provoked to think, and possibly inspired to engage. That, for me, is what art is all about. Looking is doing that. But somehow a film that centers around an issue very close to the heart of the gay community, AIDS, a film that just won three Academy Awards, this film isn't inspiring any discussion about our response as a community, the state of AIDS now, the rights of trans people, or even thoughtful consideration to our past. Why? Because it's more about McConaughey's comeback and Leto's band.
I know what you're thinking, why can't artists be opportunistic? Why shouldn't they find these meaty roles and take them purely for critical or financial gain? I think Steve McQueen would punch you in the face if you suggested he should only talk about how much money and fame he's received from 12 Years a Slave, and not the personal experience he, as a black man, has with slavery and racism. Cate Blanchett didn't need to do Blue Jasmine, but, as an artist, she had a unique opportunity to play an interesting role that happened to be the center of a film, thus showing that female characters can carry films and, as she said in her speech, make money too. Their work is an expression of their artistic vision, a vision that is defined by what makes their artistic voice unique. After hearing endless acceptance speeches from McConaughey and Leto this awards season, I find it hard to believe that they did Dallas Buyers Club to increase understanding of those living with HIV/AIDS, or gay people, or trans people. They did it to win an Oscar and get more meaty work.
It's sort of a waste of time to get worked up over the self-centered intentions of the entertainment community when it comes to gay issues and AIDS. Frankly, if a straight actor or major studio does anything related to these issues, they are lauded as brave, daring, and accepting. This they might be, but at what cost? Exploitation in Hollywood is nothing new (just ask African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, Jews, people of Middle Eastern descent... pretty much everybody other than a straight white dude), but in the age of Obama, and hopefully the dawning of Hillary, I would hope that consumers would hold Hollywood more accountable for banking on minorities purely for personal and financial gain.
There was a time when Hollywood and the Academy Awards recognized art that told true stories from a genuine place of understanding and caring, and it wasn't that long ago. In 1993, Schindler's List won Best Picture, and Tom Hanks gave this most awesomely sincere acceptance speech for Philadelphia. Do you think Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks did either of these films in order to get an in with the Jews or gays? To make money? I don't think so. Schindler's List and Philadelphia, like 12 Years a Slave, are works of art told for the purpose to entertain, inform, and provoke to engage. Dallas Buyers Club could have been that, but instead it just feels like the cool kids in high school got deep for a second and everyone is now losing their shit over it.
H. Alan Scott is a writer and comedian based in New York City and Los Angeles. This post first appeared on Thought Catalog.