by Mary Hubert
25 to Life opens with a group of men and women in their mid-20s talking affectionately about their friend, William Brawner, a young up-and-coming African American activist in Pittsburgh. He is described as charismatic, popular, a bit of a ladies’ man, and the social star of Howard University. Sound familiar? We all had friends like that in school. The difference with William, though: he is HIV positive, and has just made this fact known publicly to his city via radio.
The documentary takes us through William’s journey, starting with him contracting HIV as a 2 year old through a blood transfusion. Throughout his childhood, his mother chose to hide his disease from all but close family members, in part due to the intolerance of HIV/AIDS within the African American community. The film compares this with children who revealed their HIV status and were bullied and ostracized for it. William’s mother, who is featured prominently in the film, defends her choice, and the film seems to favor it. However, the secrecy surrounding William’s HIV positive status partially results in his choice to have unprotected sex with women who had no idea of his status, making this view a bit problematic.
The piece then jumps to William today, as he talks about his role in starting a haven for people with HIV/AIDS. It looks at his married life over the course of five years, and the struggles involved in having children with his wife (the pain and struggle of invetro fertilization, the difficulties in getting eggs, and the eventual success when his wife finds out she is pregnant are all caught on camera). Interviews with William are played over shots of murals and everyday town life – the pairing is aesthetically pleasing, but does feel a bit random at times, as do scenes of William boxing with a bag while tales of his hardships play.
A major component of the film dealt with William’s irresponsible sexual habits in high school and college – despite his knowledge of his condition, he had unprotected sex for two years with his high school girlfriend, and with many more women throughout college. William talks of this time as his period of denial, his inability to come to terms with his illness. His high school girlfriend is interviewed, and William speaks again and again about how regretful he is about this time in his life. Shots are taken of his attempts to get in contact with exes once they found out about his HIV/AIDS status, and the documentary makes it clear that he feels really, really bad.
The issue I had with this, however, is the film’s angle on William’s behavior: it seemed to posit that because William feels really, really bad, and because none of the women he had unprotected sex with contracted HIV/AIDS, then there isn’t any real harm done. To me, this trivialized the issue and skated over William’s culpability. In a talk back after the movie, one audience member pointed out the sexism of this view: if William was a women, people would not have been nearly as tolerant of his behavior. Instead, as a man, William blows off his exes’ distress at his HIV positive state after a few attempts to contact them, and expects that the audience will too.
Another issue with the film was their choice of candidate for the documentary. William is a straight, Christian, middle class, married man who contracted HIV/AIDS “through no fault of his own”, instead of sexually, which is often viewed as the person in question’s fault. True, he is African American, and the film is reaching out to the African American community, which as a community stigmatizes HIV/AIDS to a huge extent while being the community at most risk for contracting the disease. But by choosing this protagonist, other marginalized groups (women, queers, people who have contracted HIV/AIDS through unprotected sex) are still left out of the discussion. Who is defending them, if they are not represented in the HIV/AIDS conversation?
Despite this, I found the film entertaining, informative, and accessible to a wide array of people. It painted a picture of a character that I initially didn’t like in such a way that by the end of the film, I was rooting for him and his family. Underneath his story was important information about HIV/AIDS: how it is transmitted, the medicines available, that it’s not a death sentence, and the many people who are alive and well with HIV. Dispelling myths about HIV/AIDS made those who have the disease approachable instead of stigmatized, as did the film’s efforts to humanize and normalize a man with HIV/AIDs. They portrayed him as just another person like us, which ultimately is the film’s biggest success.
The bottom line: This film is a groundbreaking step in the right direction for HIV/AIDS awareness, directed at a community that is simultaneously the least tolerant of and at the highest risk for contracting the disease. Though some choices the film made were rather safe, the accessibility of the piece more than made up for its flaws. Go see this film – it’s important and entertaining.
Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.