By Dwight Hobbes
Released earlier this year, Endgame: AIDS in Black America (PBS-DVD), produced and directed by Renata Stone for WGBH/FRONTLINE, is an important documentary for the subject alone, keeping up awareness of a medical crisis many choose not to think about, much less candidly discuss. Stone also is producer of The Age of AIDS 2006’s award-winning FRONTLINE (PBS).
Endgame brings sobering information. One bit of unwelcome news: Phill Wilson, head of the Black AIDS Institute, states at a World AIDS Day convention, “If Black America was a country unto itself, it would have the 16th worse epidemic in the world. Today in America, two-thirds of new cases of HIV among women will be Black… Seventy percent of the new HIV cases of youth will be Black.”
These facts alone are compelling reason to know more about the health issue of HIV than simply because you don’t want to catch it.
You might be surprised at how many people, to this day, think HIV is AIDS and vice versa, not realizing that being HIV-positive isn’t a death sentence but in and of itself can be arrested with responsible medical care, like many other diseases. And, it’s not all that easy to contract if you know how it’s passed on.
Endgame reveals just how ignorant people have remained, citing one person so paranoid that, on moving to a home previously occupied by tenants who’d been HIV-positive, they removed everything, even the stoves and refrigerators. You don’t get it from surfaces. Or brushing against someone. You don’t catch it like a cold. Once the virus is airborne it dies.
You have to exchange body fluids, usually by having sex or sharing a hypodermic needle, but drug users need to be aware that if you have an open sore in your mouth or on your lips and smoke rock behind someone who’s infected, you have just become at-risk.
It is entirely possible to get HIV through little or no fault of your own. Women or men can be victimized if they trust and have unprotected sex with a lover who either didn’t know he was HIV+ or decided to keep that information to himself. Their partners are likely going to catch it.
Being married, as Magic Johnson’s wife can tell you, is no guarantee of protection. And, we have, here in Endgame, Nel, a 63-year-old grandmother who married a church deacon, then discovered an HIV diagnosis tucked away between the pages of his Bible. Clearly, men keeping potentially deadly secrets are an insidious danger.
Nel says, during an interview in which, even after all these years, she is visibly shaken, “It’s the worst kind of betrayal one could do to anybody.” Finding out that her husband had infected her sent her into sleepless mental and emotional turmoil that narrowly avoided ending in suicide. “I was just a mess. A total mess.”
Eventually, she got herself back on track and, despite her pastor advising her to have her husband charged — as is absolutely allowed by law — she came to the conclusion, “I still loved him. But, I could never trust him again.”
Endgame could have gone into the subject of men who are on what’s called the “Down Low” — having sex with men and not telling their women they’re having sex with men. It’s a topic that, by the way, has been addressed locally at Mixed Blood Theater with Point of Revue and Jevetta Steele’s Two Queens, One Castle, which went on to a national tour. Sad, of course, are the other innocents, the children born HIV-positive to infected mothers.
Light is shed in Endgame on a chronic, prevalent pastime: crack-for-unprotected-sex prostitution, which, throughout many cities, you see going on night and day in neighborhoods where street walkers hustle 24-7, going from man to man to get high. The narration observes, “A crack habit took everything; you’d sell [all] you have for the next hit.” Robert Fullilove, Ed.D, of Columbia University adds, “When there [is] nothing left, [men tell women] well, you still have you. If you’re the demander, you get to call the tune. And if you [demand] sex without a condom, then what’s [she] going to do? Because the addiction is that powerful.”
Endgame: AIDS in Black America is not objective. In fact, you’d have to call it an activist documentary. For instance, it flatly blames churches, a cornerstone of Black communities, for being more a part of the problem than the solution. Which is hard to argue with.
People with HIV and AIDS run up against holy-rolling hypocrites who profess, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” then turn right around and, going so far as to call it, “God’s curse,” condemn with a blind, unreasoning stigma that fosters and fuels ignorance, suspicion and myth.
Abstinence, albeit a morally upstanding idea, is not the most practical approach among teens. Grownups who sit on a moral high horse and tell teenagers to “just say no” have selective amnesia.
The man moralizing that young girls should just keep their legs closed forgets how much time he spent in his youth getting such legs to open. Women railing that boys need to resist temptation are unmindful of just how tempting they went out of their way to make themselves as girls.
Responding to biological imperative, adolescents are going to have sex. That is a given since time immemorial. The best we can do is impress upon them to do it responsibly. In this film, you get educational promoters on both sides of the issue. They agree, though, that ignorance is not an option: Young adults need to be as aware of HIV — in fact, of all sexually transmitted disease — as they are of their awakening bodies.
Not surprisingly, America’s sordid past in medically mistreating Black patients is confronted here. Specifically, the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, which was the focus of the Laurence Fishburne and Alfre Woodard film Miss Evers’ Boys, instilled an historic distrust among many African Americans of the medical profession’s intent when it comes to treating people in our communities. Regrettably, that distrust is one more reason people don’t go for blood screenings that reveal HIV early enough for patients to be prescribed medicine while it will still help, before full-blown AIDS occurs.
The film never bogs down, which is saying a lot, since it’s two hours long. Going into exhaustive detail, every minute of this documentary is well worth watching and listening to. Nowhere except Africa is there such a huge Black population that determinedly remains out-of-the-know about HIV facts. As much as it can in those two hours, Endgame: AIDS in Black America does something concrete about that.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.