Every 10 minutes, someone in the United States contracts the AIDS virus. Half are Black. Thirty years after the AIDS virus was first reported among gay White men, nearly half of the 1 million people in the United States infected with HIV are Black men, women and children—even though Blacks make up just 12.6 percent of the population. “If Black America were a country, it would have the 16th highest infection rate in the world,” says Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute.
But how and why is HIV so much worse in Black America? Can something be done—on a personal level, policy level or community level—to bring about an end to the epidemic?
ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America, airing Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), by award-winning filmmaker Renata Simone (FRONTLINE’s The Age of AIDS) takes viewers on an unprecedented two hour exploration of one of the country’s most urgent, most preventable health crises. Three years in the making, this groundbreaking documentary film tells the story of how, from the earliest days, prejudice, silence and stigma allowed the virus to spread deep into the Black community.
The documentary uncovers the layered truth through remarkably candid interviews with basketball legend Magic Johnson; civil rights pioneer Julian Bond; leading doctors, health workers, educators and social activists working on the front lines of the crisis; and pastors around the country, many of whom have been divided on the response of the Black church to the epidemic over the years.
Most compelling are the personal stories. The film allows people to tell their own stories, in their own voices. These intimate portraits are presented against the backdrop of the culture, politics and social inequities that allowed the virus to spread unchecked over the past three decades and today complicate the efforts to get to the “endgame.”
The film introduces people like Nel, a 63-year-old grandmother who married a deacon in her church and later found an HIV diagnosis tucked into his Bible. There’s the teenage rap duo Tom and Keith, children who were born with the virus in the early 1990s and survived after their mothers died; Jesse, who had to hide his sexuality because of homophobia in his church, community and family; and Jovanté, a high school football player who didn’t realize what HIV meant until it was too late.
Shot coast to coast in Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.; in churches, clinics, a high school classroom, a prison, a nightclub, a restaurant kitchen and on the street, the story moves through time and across the country, finally focusing on the South, where the crisis is growing fastest among young people. FRONTLINE reveals the chain of events that helped spread the epidemic, even altering the nature of the mating game itself. As UCLA psychologist Gail Wyatt explains, “For males, they have a shopping spree…. For women, ‘I may have to take some risks to prove to that person that I really care about them, that I trust them and I’m not going to create a lot of drama.’”
Marvelyn, who was an attractive, popular high school graduate when she fell for an older man, says: “HIV and normal didn’t go together. Or so I thought.” Becoming very ill very suddenly, she found herself in a hospital intensive care ward. Doctors were stumped until finally, they realized what was making her so sick, was the AIDS virus. “I feel like the community let me down. The school system let me down. I was definitely ignorant and uneducated about the virus,” she says. “And now I live with it.”
Mel Prince, who runs the only HIV clinic between Selma, Alabama, and the Mississippi border, explains the damage caused by persistent stigma. “In the South, in the Black Belt, there’s a great stigma around HIV. People are afraid to eat behind individuals. They don’t want to live next door. We even had people throw out refrigerators and stoves after that person died.”
Some members of the conservative clergy, like Pastor Michael Jordan, have promoted these negative attitudes. In 2004, he put up a sign outside his church. “The words were very stern,” explains Jordan. “‘AIDS is God’s curse to a homosexual life.’ I think it stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Patrick Packer of the Southern AIDS Coalition counters: “He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get that God loves all his children. He loves the gay member of his family; God loves the transgendered member; God loves the person that is struggling with drug addiction and gets infected by using needles. God loves them, just like God loves his members of his church that might be struggling with other issues.”
The film follows basketball legend Magic Johnson to an appointment with his doctor, David Ho. In an intimate interview, Johnson explains how he contracted the virus, what happened when he told his pregnant wife, Cookie, and how he feels about living with the virus. “Well, I’m not cured. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. So no there’s no cure. I’m living with this virus in my blood system and in my body, and I’ve got to be careful.”
We go inside Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, to the HIV clinic, where we meet Dr. Earl Joyner and one of his patients. Speaking of the inmates he cares for, Dr. Joyner talks straight. “They do have sex—more than a little.” And he tells us why we should care about HIV-positive inmates: “If I showed you a list of inmates that are being paroled out of state prison per month, it would take up two pages. So these people don’t stay here indefinitely. They’re not here for life. They go back to the community.”
Civil rights leader Julian Bond puts the epidemic into its social and historical context. And when it comes to his own role, he is startlingly candid. “Was it on my radar? I don’t really know if it was something that I felt I didn’t want to get engaged in, or what the reason was. … Well, I feel badly about myself. It’s a bad reflection on me that I didn’t take a more leading role than I did. I could have; I should have. I was in a position of responsibility. I could have done it, and I didn’t.”
But Robert Fullilove of Columbia University says Black leaders were in a quandary. “There’s a list of problems that people in the Black community face. And not surprisingly, Black folks want their leaders to do something about them. So when you show up in the mid-80s saying, ‘Uh, excuse me, you now need to add AIDS to the list,’ they said, ‘Where am I going to put it?’”
“The film is about race in America as much as it is about HIV—how a virus has exploited our inability to deal with our problems around race,” says filmmaker Renata Simone. “In part I hoped to show how the big, abstract social issues come to rest on people every day, in the limited life choices they face. The story of HIV in Black America is about the private consequences of the politics of race.”
Near the end of the film, we come to the hardest hit city in the country, the nation’s capital, where the prevalence of HIV last year was higher than in African nations like Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Congo. Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick runs an HIV clinic there. She says her patients keep her grounded. “I have a patient who says, ‘I know you’re a doctor, but you don’t really know what the deal is, so let me tell you what the deal is.’” Still, Fitzpatrick is optimistic. “Ending the epidemic is entirely within our power. The challenge I see is that we have to have courage to do the things that we need to do that are difficult.”
Marsha Martin of Get Screened Oakland sums up the 30 years of the epidemic in the Black community: “We have achieved some things as a group of black people in America because the civil rights movement got us to some places. But at the same time, AIDS is in it everywhere, showing us all the places that we have missed, saying, ‘Look over here, look over here, look over here!’”
By uncovering the layered truth of how and why HIV is so much worse in Black America, and by letting us come to know people who are affected now and what their lives are like, the film points to the future. As Phill Wilson, head of the Black AIDS Institute, tells it: “We’ve been at this for 30 years now. We are at a different point in the evolution of the crisis. We need to be talking about our endgame.”
The film is directed, produced and written by Renata Simone, the producer of the 2006 award-winning FRONTLINE series The Age of AIDS. Simone, who created the first national series on HIV in 1989, The AIDS Quarterly with Peter Jennings, brings decades of knowledge about HIV and experience in the field to this film. The trust Simone has earned over the years allowed her to film candid moments with people across the country and gain access to places deep inside the epidemic.
ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America is a Renata Simone Productions, Inc. film for WGBH/FRONTLINE in association with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC). Renata Simone is the director, producer and writer.
This film was made possible by major grants from the Ford Foundation and the M.A.C. AIDS Fund, with additional support from the Brian A. McCarthy Foundation. The executive producer for the NBPC is Jacquie Jones. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.