Panelists assembled at SAG-AFTRA’s headquarters on the eve of World AIDS Day heaped praise on Hollywood for its early and continuing efforts to educate the world about the deadly disease, but they all agreed that the industry can and should do more – especially when it comes to reaching African Americans.
“The entertainment industry played a huge role at the beginning of the epidemic, and I believe it can play a huge role in ending it,” said Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who in 1981 became the first physician to describe the new disease that would later become known as AIDS.
The good news, he said, is that remarkable scientific progress has made in identifying, treating and preventing the disease. The bad news, he said, is that there’s been “no reduction in new infections in the United States in 20 years.” Even more disturbing, he said, is that “40% of the new infections are in the black community,” which makes up only 12% of the population.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, playwright and author of “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” and story writer for the film Moonlight, pointed out that if you Google AIDS and movies, nearly all of those depicted with the disease are white. McCraney, whose mother died of AIDS, said that “Illness is a part of the human condition and must be part of the way we tell human stories.”
AIDS World Day is on Thursday, and SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said she looks forward “to the day when we can celebrate there being no more AIDS World Days.”
The panel was hosted by the union’s LGBT Committee and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, and Carteris praised Taylor for all the work she did in the early days of the epidemic to fight for the rights of AIDS victims. “Thank God we had Elizabeth Taylor,” she said. “She did it at a time when others were paralyzed with fear, offering care and love to those in need.” Carteris also noted that “ours was one of the first industries to be affected by the disease.”
Taylor’s granddaughter, Naomi Wilding, said that “this industry is uniquely engaged to educate,” and that it was her grandmother’s “dream to see the end of the AIDS epidemic.”
Producer Neal Baer, who may have featured more HIV/AIDS-related characters and storylines on his shows (ER and Law & Order: SVU) than anyone else in Hollywood, said that “the power of storytelling is to provoke social change, or we have nothing.”
Entertainment, however, often trumps education. Chandi Moore, an HIV and trans activist who appeared in the I Am Cait series with Caitlyn Jenner, noted that a real-life scene in which AIDS was discussed was edited out of the now-cancelled show.
Actress Jaime Pressly, whose uncle died of AIDS, said that the stigma surrounding AIDS “is still real,” and that the entertainment industry can “bring awareness to communities that aren’t being spoken to.”
World AIDS Day is Thursday.