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Frontline: “Endgame: AIDS In Black America”

Illustration for article titled iFrontline/i: “Endgame: AIDS In Black America”
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At first blush, the topic of AIDS in African-Americans may seem too narrow to appeal to a broad audience, but the beauty of tonight’s Frontline lies in how it shows, but never tells, just how dangerous this kind of thinking can be.

The episode begins with the first recorded cases of AIDS, which in the early 1980s was largely thought to be a disease primarily afflicting white, gay males and originating from San Francisco, partially because no victims of the disease next door in Oakland were willing to make their personal problems public. In the first of many elegant transitions, the danger of not speaking up about AIDS is illustrated as we meet Nell, a woman whose husband discovered that he had HIV/AIDS a full year before he married her but never told her. By the time she discovered his diagnosis, it was too late: He had infected her as well. The composure she maintains while telling her story is astonishing.

Endgame zooms in to personal stories like that of Nell, then pulls back to get a wider picture of the situation repeatedly throughout the episode. It introduces us not only to larger players in the war on AIDS in the black community (community activists, doctors, a guy you may have heard of named Magic Johnson), but also less-flashy individuals for whom life with AIDS is a private, everyday ordeal, like the “bornies”(kids who were born infected), an AIDS patient who explains to her doctor her unwillingness to reveal her status to her partners, or sex educators who are forced by state curriculum to teach an abstinence-based program to their kids despite the fact that they know—as do their sexually-active students—that this is folly.  (This scene will make you want to bang your head against a wall, or possibly air-drop condoms all across the South.)

The insistence on abstinence-only programs is just one of a few examples of missteps the government has made over the years that inadvertently worsened the AIDS crisis that the documentary shares For instance, the reason why needle-sharing used to be so prevalent amongst intravenous drug users was that in many cities, simply carrying a needle was illegal. Hence, dealers would “rent” them out. Meanwhile, attempts to win the war on drugs resulted in harsh prison terms for crack users (who tended to be black men). Then, in jail, contraceptive methods were not allowed to be distributed among prisoners for fear that they would condone prison sex. Naturally, even more tragic results from these preventive measures ensued after these prisoners become parolees. It is depressing, frustrating stuff.

One surprise of Endgame is the credit given by AIDS activists to George W. Bush for introducing the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in an attempt to curb the worldwide spread of AIDS. The effectiveness of PEPFAR, however, illustrates just how much work needs to be done in order to curb the spread of the disease in our own country, where an emergency plan would be welcome if it weren’t for stumbling blocks like weaknesses in sex education programs or, on a more cultural level, the condemnation of homosexuality found in many black (especially Southern) churches.

Endgame covers a remarkable amount of territory in its two hours, managing to touch upon the topics of health, history, culture, race, and gender using real people to illustrate a massive problem. Meanwhile, the viewer at home who may not be black or be infected with HIV/AIDS and who might wonder, “What does this have to do with me?” only needs to think back to the original assumption that AIDS was a white, gay male disease to realize that it has to do with everyone.

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