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New documentary explores the impacts of AIDS on the Black community

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Image courtesy of The National AIDS Memorial
Image courtesy of The National AIDS Memorial

In mid-September, the National AIDS Memorial released its newest mini documentary, titled The Black Community & AIDS. The film explores the disproportionate impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the Black community through the 21st century so far, as told by the lived experiences of nearly two dozen Black AIDS survivors and advocates.

"Black people have been villainized and stigmatized around not just having an HIV diagnosis but as being pushers of the virus," said Tori Cooper, HIV advocate and director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative at the Human Rights Campaign. "That stigma that was perpetuated 40 years ago and still exists and still impacts the way society thinks about people who are living with HIV."

In an interview featured in the documentary, Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, explains how the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic has historically ignored race to the detriment of the Black community.

"The face of AIDS didn't change. White people in the media [recently] finally got the memo; people started to look at the data." It was only later they realized, he said, that "we were always there. [Black people] were always disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and for the most part, we were always there in the fight against the pandemic."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of HIV and AIDS is estimated to be nearly eight times higher in the Black community than in white people. This is largely attributed to "racism, HIV stigma, homophobia, poverty, and barriers to health care."

Image courtesy of The National AIDS Memorial  

Diversifying the narrative about AIDS
"A vast majority of people tended to think of it [HIV/AIDS] as a Gay white disease," said JÃ┬Ârg Fockele, director and producer of The Black Community & AIDS. "[And] what tends to be forgotten is that HIV and AIDS are not over — it's still happening now... We still see it particularly impacting certain communities that we often don't hear about."

Wilson added, "One of the misconceptions around HIV and AIDS is that its one size fits all, and nothing could be further from the truth. AIDS is specific for every community, and that's particularly true in the Black community."

The Black Community & AIDS is the seventh chapter of the National AIDS Memorial's Surviving Voices oral history series, which was started in 2015. The series aims to capture the intersectional "stories and lessons of the epidemic" to ensure that they are "retained for future generations."

Surviving Voices' other focuses include women, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and the Transgender community's specific activism and struggle against AIDS.

Jevon Martin, founder and executive director of Princess Janae Place (which helps homeless Trans people with independent living), first got involved with the project in 2019 as the co-producer and community liaison for the fifth chapter, The Transgender Community & AIDS (the same roles he holds for The Black Community & AIDS).

Martin sees the docuseries as an opportunity "change the narrative of the stigma that's behind HIV and AIDS... It's really important for us to tell the story from a Black perspective, because it's very different, [and] very different in other cultures."

Throughout the film, many of the interviewees reference the stigma of having HIV or AIDS, both four decades ago and today. Jada Harris, Call My Name program manager at the National AIDS Memorial, explained: "It's not as if HIV or AIDS is seen as a health crisis, it's seen as something you should feel shame about."

Image courtesy of The National AIDS Memorial  

Using film to broaden perspectives
However, Martin says he sees film as a medium "to open the eyes of a lot of people" through storytelling.

"These short documentaries are powerful. To tell 18 people's stories in less than 20 minutes is amazing, and it's so impactful," he said. "It's just like, we're all just regular people. And just because someone has AIDS or HIV, it doesn't mean they're less than a person. It doesn't mean that they don't deserve health care, [that] they don't deserve the same as everyone."

While the original intention of the film was as a public service announcement and educational tool at conferences and schools and in classrooms, Fockele hopes to continue reaching wider audiences to spread further awareness about AIDS beyond the direct advocacy community.

Since the documentary's completion, The Black Community & AIDS has already been featured at several educational events and film festivals, including Frameline and New York City Black Pride, and most recently received the Jury Award at the SF Queer Film Fest.

And as for the next chapter, Fockele tells the SGN that he and the National AIDS Memorial will be dedicating screen time in 2023 to the AIDS Memorial quilters, a tribute to the 35th anniversary of the NAMES Project Foundation.

The Surviving Voices mini-documentary series, including The Black Community & AIDS, is available to stream for free on the National AIDS Memorial website and YouTube channel. In addition, extended versions of each interview can be found on the same streaming platforms.