Film can inspire change and build awareness. If a film brings attention to an issue that is being ignored or shows a side to a story that most would have never known, it can make an enormous impact on society. There have been many films about HIV/AIDS since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. A few of these films have gone on to critical and audience acclaim. That notoriety brought about national conversations about treatment, tolerance and the stigmas attached to the the virus.

With the 89th Academy Awards scheduled for this coming Sunday February 26th, let’s take a look at two important films that Oscar has recognized which dealt with the topic of HIV.


Dallas Buyers Club

Most recently, HIV was the topic of the Oscar winning film Dallas Buyer’s Club. In 2013, Matthew McConaughey impressed the world with his intimate and vulnerable performance as real-life HIV activist Ron Woodruff. The film tells the story of man diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, who then goes on to defy the law and create an underground drug exchange in order to help others dying of HIV/AIDS live longer. In the middle of the AIDS epidemic, many treatments were not yet legal in the United States but were legal in Mexico. This led to Woodruff suing the United States Food and Drug Administration as he smuggled medicines in from across the border. The film explores Woodruff’s struggle with the virus and his relentless fight to survive.

Sadly, Ron Woodruff passed away due to AIDS-related pneumonia on September 12, 2002. This was just seven years after his diagnosis. The film about his life  would go on to win two Academy Awards, including one for McConaughey’s performance. Most importantly, the film helped to bring awareness to the history of HIV treatment in America by shining a light on the difficulties of developing drug treatments during the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today, patients are capable of living long and healthy lives after diagnosis due to FDA approved treatments.



Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS and the discrimination those diagnosed with the infection had to endure. Starring Tom Hanks, the film told the story of a talented lawyer, Andrew Beckett, who contracts HIV and is fired from his firm due to the diagnosis. As his condition develops into AIDS, Becket enlists the counsel of a homophobic attorney in order to sue his firm for wrongful termination. As the trial continues, Beckett begins to grow very ill and eventually succumbs to his illness shortly after winning the case. The film would earn Tom Hanks his first Academy Award for Best Actor.

The film was a work of fiction but inspired by true events. Geoffrey Bowers was a real-life lawyer who was voted out of his law firm, Baker & McKenzie, after he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. He went on to sue the firm in one of the first ever AIDS discrimination cases in the United States. Bowers won the case, but not until 6 years after he passed away from AIDS-related complications. While this case, and others like it, were not widely publicized, Philadelphia, helped to build awareness to the issue of HIV/AIDS discrimination.


These two films were released twenty years apart. This just goes to show the importance of maintaining a conversation about HIV in the arts and media. The issues and topics discussed may change over time, but one fact remains: there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS.

If you believe you have been exposed to HIV, the first step is to have HIV testing performed. This is the best way to know the current status of your sexual health. Today, treatments exist that can help a person live a long and healthy life if the infection is caught early enough.


1 Dallas Buyers Club Website
2 IMDB – Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
3 Two decades ago, Tom Hanks and ‘Philadelphia’ prompted changing attitudes toward HIV-AIDS
4 IMDB – Philadelphia (1993)