Monday, February 26, 2007

“This disease ain’t no joke. And I’m not going to shut up about it. I don’t care if y’all don’t care. I’ll stop talking about it when y’all stop dying. In the meantime, use your heads, ladies.”

These critical words, spoken by actress Queen Latifah, are at the crux of an HBO film that speaks about the unspeakable: the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black communities, especially as it infects women.

“Black women are the No. 1 people getting [the disease], and I wanted to create a film that would give black women a voice,” said Nelson George, producer and writer of “Life Support.” The multigenerational story is based on Mr. George’s real-life experiences with his sister, Andrea Williams. She is a recovering drug addict who has been living with the virus for a decade, and who became an activist in a community service organization in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Life Support.

This project began as a way to deal with “the fears my family had,” Mr. George said. However, “She evolved and gained knowledge … and what we thought was a negative thing that would destroy her and be tragic for us turned to a positive, and she became focused and centered, and this was good and inspirational.”

Mr. George, along with actress Gloria Reuben, will attend at the D.C. screening of “Life Support” tonight sponsored by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. It was released at the Sundance Film Festival in January and debuts March 10 on HBO.

“The purpose of this [film] is to reignite the dialogue about this virus,” he said.

Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, which publishes a report card on the D.C. government’s ability to deal with HIV/AIDS, spoke on the film. Though he has seen only trailers for “Life Support,” Mr. Smith said that “the more that’s out there [about HIV/AIDS] the more people will know. … Leaders across the board have to speak out.” In our past conversations, Mr. Smith often suggested that the biggest problem in eradicating HIV/AIDS is the community’s unwillingness to talk about the disease.

“There has to be more frank, public talk about this issue at the highest levels,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s a sad situation. Some of it is so closeted that some people would rather die than get tested.”

All too often, I’m sorry to say, black folks won’t talk about tough social and health issues such as HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, bisexuality and drug abuse. We turn a blind eye even when faced with some of these problems. Or, if we do have any discussions, it’s to condemn people, which scares too many from seeking help.

Of course, abstinence and self-discipline should be a part of the HIV/AIDS community discourse, but we also must be willing to listen and do what is necessary to help those who are engaged in unhealthy behaviors.

It has been well-documented that the District has one of the highest incidences of new HIV/AIDS cases in the country, and women are the fastest-growing segment of that group. “That’s a very important population that’s growing where much, much more needs to be done,” Mr. Smith said.

Nor is it a secret, as Mr. Smith noted, that intravenous drug use in a big factor in the rapid spread of the disease here, accounting for one-third of the patients. That is how Mr. George’s sister contracted the disease from her husband, according to the film.

Still, D.C. Appleseed’s report card indicates that the District lacks a coordinated plan between government agencies and community groups to attack this health crisis.

“Whether the District is doing all it can, I’m dubious,” he said. “Often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing and that doesn’t make for efficient use of resources.”

D.C. government workers started handing out more than 250,000 condoms citywide during the week of Valentine’s Day in an effort to distribute more than 1 million by the end of the year. New York City initiated a similar program, “We’ve Got You Covered,” to distribute 18 million condoms.

Miss Latifah’s character in “Life Support,” Anna Wallace, spends a great deal of her day as an outreach worker passing out condoms and literature and boldly lecturing to everyone, including her daughter’s boyfriend.

Mr. George said this “naturalistic and tough” film is the first, to his knowledge, that deals with women with HIV/AIDS or patients who are surviving with the disease.

“A lot that has been written is all about Africa, but there is a lot of stuff going on here,” said Mr. George, who followed his sister around Brooklyn for more than a year while working on this project.

“Life Support” is an ambitious undertaking indeed. Integral to the film, Mr. George said, were his sister and the real outreach workers who engage in gutsy, impromptu support sessions.

At its heart, however, is a forceful family story about “repairing relationships, a slice of urban life and redemption,” as Miss Latifah says in a promotional interview.

“People think this is yesterday’s news, but it’s not yesterday’s news,” Miss Latifah said. “After 25 years, people still don’t want to talk about it.”

We can only hope that “Life Support” becomes a water-cooler topic because someone needs to keep talking about the disease until people stop dying from it.

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