And The Films Played On: An Essential Guide To HIV/AIDS-Related Cinema

December 1 is Worlds AIDS Day, an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS, show their support for people living with the disease and to commemorate people who have died.

These 10 films represent some of the most interesting, complex and moving cinematic portrayals of the epidemic. Some are groundbreaking, others are award-winning but all are essential to understanding the impact HIV and AIDS has had on our society.

For a list of World AIDS Day events worldwide visit GayCities.


Check out Queerty’s picks for 10 essential films about HIV/AIDS.


An Early Frost (1985)

An NBC made-for-television movie, An Early Frost was the first major film to deal with HIV and AIDS. Aidan Quinn plays a successful lawyer who, on returning home to visit his parents (played by Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands), reveals that he’s both gay and living with AIDS.


Parting Glances (1986)

First-time director Bill Sherwood died of complications from AIDS in 1990 without finishing another film, but Parting Glances nonetheless stands as an impressive legacy. This independent film explores 24 hours in the lives of Michael (Richard Ganoung) and Robert (John Bolger) as Robert readies to leave for Africa on a long-term assignment and Michael tends to his ex, Nick (Steve Buscemi in his first major role), a punk rocker battling AIDS as his band makes it big.


Longtime Companion (1989)

The first widely-released film to tackle the subject of AIDS, Longtime Companion chronicles the first years of the epidemic through the lives of a group of gay men (Dermot Mulroney, Bruce Davison, Mark Lemos, Patrick Cassidy, John Dossett and Stephen Caffrey) and a straight sister (Mary-Louise Parker). The title was taken from the words used to describe the surviving same-sex partner of an AIDS victim in a New York Times article.


The Living End (1992)

Gregg Araki’s New Queer Cinema take on Thelma & Louise finds two gay, HIV-positive men (Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore) on the lam with nothing to lose after one of them kills a homophobic police officer. Luke (Dytri), a gay hustler, and Jon (Gilmore), a timid movie critic, embark on a hedonistic road trip with only the motto “Fuck everything” to guide them.


And the Band Played On (1993)

HBO adapted the 1987 nonfiction book by Randy Stilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, into this Emmy-winning docudrama starring Matthew Modine as Dr. Don Francis, an epidemiologist  struggling to identify what would eventually become known as HIV/AIDS. Featuring an all-star cast, the film explores the infighting among the scientific community that hampered the early fight against the epidemic.


Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks won his first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his portrayal of a gay man fired from his law firm once it is revealed he has AIDS. Denzel Washington plays a homophobic small-town lawyer, the only person willing to take his controversial case, who in the process overcomes his bigotry. Antonio Banderas rounds out the superb cast as Hanks’ lover.


Jeffrey (1995)

A gay romantic comedy about AIDS? Yup. Based on a play by Paul Rudnick, Jeffrey (Steven Weber) has sworn off sex all-together due to his increasing paranoia over the AIDS epidemic. That is until he meets the perfect man in Michael T. Weiss, a charming, HIV-positive hunk who challenges his convictions. It’s a little stagey but gets bonus points for Patrick Stewart and Bryan Batt (the closeted Salvatore from Mad Men season 1) as a constantly bickering gay couple.


All About My Mother (1999)

Pedro Almodóvar took home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for this drama about Manuela, a single mother (Cecilia Roth) who travels to Barcelona after losing her teenage son in a car accident. There, Manuela befriends several characters including Rosa (Penélope Cruz),  a young nun, Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a transsexual prostitute and the estranged father of her son, Lola (Toni Cantó), a transvestite dying of AIDS who never knew he had a son to begin with.


Angels in America (2003)

Tony Kushner’s epic 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play ran away with 11 Emmys and five Golden  Globes as a mini-series for HBO, helmed by director Mike Nichols. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino lead a stellar cast (including Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in the role he originated on Broadway) in this sweeping exploration of societal upheaval amidst the backdrop of AIDS and Reagan-era America.


Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)

Mo’Nique delivers an Oscar-winning performance for the ages as Mary Johnston, mother of Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a morbidly obese teenager who has undergone years of mental,  physical and sexual abuse. After being raped on numerous occasions by her father, resulting in two pregnancies, Precious learns that she is also HIV-positive. Yet she manages to find a new lease on life through a caring teacher (Paula Patton) and a tough social worker (Mariah Carey).

For a list of World AIDS Day events worldwide visit GayCities.

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