Two Documentaries Capture Historic Moments in the US AIDS Epidemic

By Regina McEnery

Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star whose megawatt smile was about as famous as the dazzling moves that inspired his nickname, shocked the sports world on Nov. 7, 1991, when he announced that he had contracted HIV and would retire that day from the Lakers.

In a 90-minute documentary, entitled “The Announcement,” narrated by Johnson and produced by ESPN Films for the network’s entertainment television channels, the basketball legend recounts the tense private moments leading up to his explosive disclosure, describing, among other things, his anguish at the thought that he may have infected his wife, Cookie, and their unborn child. It turned out he had not. Still, Cookie was opposed to his making a public announcement. This was not surprising. The nation, and certainly the world of professional sports, hadn’t quite come to terms with the HIV epidemic.

But the diagnosis was not a death sentence, as many at the time assumed it would be. Thanks to a new class of HIV drugs called protease inhibitors and the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), Johnson has lived a relatively healthy life with the virus for more than 20 years. He has in that time become an inspiring advocate for the treatment and prevention of HIV infection, working to remove the stigma associated with HIV, which today infects more than 33 million people worldwide. The documentary is as much about how Johnson has lived with his diagnosis as it is about the impact of his announcement, which shocked his friends and fans and left many in tears. The film first aired on March 11 and is scheduled to be shown through April 14.

A second documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” by journalist and first-time director Donald France, examines how the activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)—and the Treatment Action Group, an offshoot of ACT UP—drew attention to the HIV epidemic. Scores of gay activists, terrified by the specter of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, fought to save the sick and dying using a range of aggressive tactics that included not only protests at Capitol Hill but such antics as infiltrating the set of a nightly news broadcast and marching outside the home of Anthony Fauci, the director of the US Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was funding many of the AIDS drug trials.

Fifteen years after the first cases of AIDS were detected, HAART was rescuing AIDS patients from the brink of death and transforming the US epidemic. ACT UP is credited with putting AIDS on the national health agenda and so speeding these developments. Two special screenings of the documentary were held in New York City in March—on the 25th anniversary of the very first ACT UP demonstration. It is due to open in theatres this fall.