PBS' ‘Endgame’ puts AIDS in black America under the lens

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Half of all Americans infected with HIV each day are black, as are half of the nation’s one million people living with the virus. In “Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Renata Simone focuses her camera on this often-overlooked crisis within a crisis for PBS’ “Frontline” series.

Although gay white men dominated the stories and images of the epidemic’s onset, they were not the only ones infected. In San Francisco, word about the emerging disease spread rapidly within the gay community. But across the bay, in Oakland, it was a different story.

In San Francisco, people were acting up, speaking out, taking action. In contrast, Oakland’s black gay and bi residents lived in silent fear. According to an activist interviewed in the film, African Americans simply didn’t have “the safety of numbers or resources to have an out, active community.” Cultural baggage forced them to protect themselves by hiding their identities.

Half of all Americans infected with HIV each day are black, as are half of the nation’s one million people living with the virus. In “Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Renata Simone focuses her camera on this often-overlooked crisis within a crisis for PBS’ “Frontline” series.

Although gay white men dominated the stories and images of the epidemic’s onset, they were not the only ones infected. In San Francisco, word about the emerging disease spread rapidly within the gay community. But across the bay, in Oakland, it was a different story.

In San Francisco, people were acting up, speaking out, taking action. In contrast, Oakland’s black gay and bi residents lived in silent fear. According to an activist interviewed in the film, African Americans simply didn’t have “the safety of numbers or resources to have an out, active community.” Cultural baggage forced them to protect themselves by hiding their identities.

Secrecy and fear helped to fuel the epidemic within African-American communities. An interview with Nel, a

divorced mother, a nurse and a grandmother who is active in her church, provides a perfect illustration. After her second marriage to Rodney, a man who failed to disclose his HIV status to her, she tested positive for the virus.

The homophobia of the black church led many gay men to find community in the club scene. There, they enjoyed sanctuary among others like them. They danced, drank and forgot their troubles. But they also gained access to drugs.

The sharing of needles in shooting galleries became a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic in the black community. Laws against drug paraphernalia prevented addicts from access to clean needles. Although syringe exchange programs in cities such as Atlanta attempted to stem the spread of HIV by offering clean needles to addicts, the programs incurred political fallout and the disapproval of pastors.

“Endgame” traces a line from the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s to the present day. With crack’s aphrodisiac effects, it’s not surprising that crack and sex work, as a means of paying for the drug, often go hand in hand. Crack-related arrests created a large population of incarcerated African Americans. While most authorities in the prison system deny the existence of homosexual activity among inmates, Dr. Earl Joyner says he knows otherwise.

Paroled inmates who contracted HIV in prison returned home to their wives and girlfriends, as well as their male sex partners, and a new cycle of transmission began. Because of the large number of incarcerations, the number of available men in black communities dwindled. As a result, the competition for male attention among women intensified. Women became willing to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, including having unprotected sex, in order to hold on to male companionship.

A tipping point occurred in the epidemic when professional basketball player Magic Johnson, who is extensively interviewed in the documentary, went public with his HIV diagnosis. Still, black leaders were slow to respond. As AIDS activist Phill Wilson says, the black community “lacked the political will to nip the epidemic in the bud.”

Although antiviral cocktails have changed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness in the United States, the crisis is far from over. In the Deep South, due to ignorance and distrust of the government, the epidemic rages unabated. The documentary stresses that school systems and communities across the South are letting young people down by adhering to abstinence-based education.

Although an actual “endgame” doesn’t appear to be in sight, Wilson says that after 30 years it’s time to start talking about one. As this documentary demonstrates, however, it will not happen without a serious cultural shift among African-American leaders – religious, political and social.

On the Web

To view "Endgame," click here.

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