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The Trouble With Representing HIV/AIDS In The Very Troublesome 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | /Bent January 16, 2014 at 11:15AM

I'll admit that I walked into "Dallas Buyers Club" looking for trouble. How couldn't I? One of a small handful of American cinematic representations about the onset of the AIDS in the 1980s, any film that tries to tackle a controversially neglected, remarkably devastating chapter in history is set to be challenged when it comes to how it represents it. Especially when the people tackling it -- and being heroized within it -- do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS.
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Dallas Buyers Club
"Dallas Buyers Club"

This piece was originally published during the Toronto Film Festival. "Dallas Buyers Club" has now been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including best picture.

I'll admit that I walked into "Dallas Buyers Club" looking for trouble. How couldn't I? One of a small handful of American cinematic representations about the onset of the AIDS in the 1980s, any film that tries to tackle a controversially neglected, remarkably devastating chapter in history is set to be challenged when it comes to how it represents it. Especially when the people tackling it -- and being heroized within it -- do not embody the group of people who were most ravaged by AIDS.

The idea of someone directing a film that largely represents a demographic of people that they do not belong to is clearly no new notion (see "Brokeback Mountain," "Philadelphia," "The Color Purple," "Django Unchained," "Norma Rae" and "Thelma & Louise"). And in many of those cases, things worked out just fine ("Dallas Buyers Club" director Jean-Marc Vallée was an example of that himself with his fantastic 2005 gay coming-of-age story "C.R.A.Z.Y."). But the immediate concern with "Dallas Buyers" wasn't that it's being directed by a straight white dude (not that I'd even let that concern me at this point anyway), but that it's about a straight white dude.

In "Dallas Buyers Club," the most powerful demographic in America is being used to portray a story about a devastating disease that has historically had very little to do with them, except when it came to the people ignoring, stigmatizing and inadvertently killing people with AIDS. Yes, it's based on a true story and yes, there are indeed straight white men who have died from AIDS, and even more straight white men who have shown nothing but love and compassion for people affected by the disease. But since it's been 20 years since the last major Hollywood film ("Philadelphia" came out in 1993) that dealt primarily about an epidemic that has killed over 650,000 in the United States (over half of them gay men), all I could say to myself going into the film's first screening at the Toronto Film Festival was "this better just be a really, really good movie." Unfortunately, it was not. But we'll get to that in a bit.

Dallas Buyers Club

"Dallas Buyers Club" wastes no time setting things up for us. It begins with images of cowboys and American flags at a Texas rodeo before introducing us to its alleged hero, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), who is having sex with two women under the rodeo's stand. It's the first of many, many times in the film when we are bombarded with images of female flesh, cowboy hats and various other symbols of macho Americana. Just in case it wasn't already very, very clear that Woodroof is as straight and American as they come (it's safe to relate to him, straight dudes!).

What's also clear a few minutes later is that Woodroof is as homophobic as they come. With a newspaper headline announcing Rock Hudson's death from AIDS on the table in a back room at the rodeo, he announces to his fellow cowboys: "You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?" Oblivious to Woodroof is the fact that he too has AIDS, but he finds that out soon enough. Before the 10-minute mark of "Dallas Buyers Club," he's collapsed and taken to the hospital, where he wakes up to find two doctors (an evil one played by Denis O'Hare, and a saintly one played by Jennifer Garner) telling him he has "tested positive for HIV" (despite the fact that it's explicitly noted that it is July 1985 at the time, ten months before "HIV" was ever used to describe the virus that causes AIDS).

"I ain't no faggot motherfucker," Woodroof responds to them when asked if he's ever had homosexual relations. And thus begins the film's core narrative, in which Woodroof -- faced with a diagnosis of 30 days to live -- fights for his life by heading to Mexico to find drugs not yet approved in America and bringing them back to Dallas to use himself and to sell to the largely gay demographic of people in town also suffering from the disease (selling memberships to a "buyer's club" -- an idea he rips off from AIDS activist group ACT UP in New York -- to sell the drugs without breaking the rules).