Save me, straight man: My beef with ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
by Abdi Nazemian
I don’t stay up past nine o’clock very often these days (I’m on toddler time), but I made an exception to attend a screening of Dallas Buyers Club. This is among the movies I had been most excited about seeing this year, primarily because it was (shockingly) one of the few large-scale movies to be set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. As a gay man coming of age in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS has been among the defining issues of my life. Though I am too young to be touched by the disease as personally as the generation that preceded mine, it has always been a part of my psyche. I have feared it, I have allowed it to influence my behavior and my relationships, and I have been inspired by my community’s response to it.
As I sat through Dallas Buyers Club, I couldn’t help but feel moved by Matthew McConaughey’s brilliant performance as Ron Woodruff, a homophobic cowboy who starts an underground buyers club for alternative treatments not yet approved by the FDA. I also couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the movie was told from the perspective of a homophobic cowboy in the first place, and one who is portrayed as the savior to an alternately passive and destructive gay population.
The first big Hollywood movie to tackle the AIDS epidemic, Philadelphia, featured Denzel Washington as a homophobic lawyer who comes to the rescue of Tom Hanks. In each of these movies, our beloved homophobe sheds his hatred as a result of his relationship with a gay man. In each movie, the gay man dies.
Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club are both groundbreaking movies in their own right, and I am happy they exist. However, I find it troublesome that Hollywood, the industry that made red ribbons a must-have fashion accessory, feels that it needs a homophobic straight man as an entry point when dealing with this subject matter.
I understand that Ron Woodruff was a unique, heroic, and compelling man, but I find it disconcerting that among the thousands of stories to emerge from this epidemic, his is the one to be memorialized on celluloid.
Hollywood’s depiction of gay men on screen has been abysmal, but perhaps never more so than in its reluctance to depict the gay community’s struggle and heroism during the AIDS epidemic. Type “HIV/AIDS in film” into Wikipedia and you will quickly see that the majority of big-budget Hollywood movies dealing with AIDS either feature a homophobic straight hero or a heterosexual female (Boys on the Side, Gia). I urge audiences to seek out smaller films like Longtime Companion, Jeffrey, and Parting Glances, which tell the story of AIDS from a gay perspective.
And I am pleased that two upcoming films – a film version of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and the miniseries adaptation of the documentary How to Survive A Plague – will memorialize the lives of gay activists. The truth is that the gay community mobilized in an unprecedented way in response to the AIDS epidemic. They did not wait for a homophobic cowboy or a homophobic attorney to save them. They saved themselves.Tags: Abdi Nazemian, Dallas Buyers Club, Denzel Washington, HIV/AIDS, Hollywood, Hollywood's depiction of gay men on screen, Homosexuality, Matthew McConaughey, Philadelphia