The Black AIDS Institute’s Heroes in the Struggle Gala and Award Celebration honors in a star-studded event and photographic tribute individuals who over the past year have made a heroic contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Lee Daniels is the Academy Award-winning filmmaker of films like Precious, The Paperboy, The Butler and Monster’s Ball, and the producer of the hit television series “Empire” and the soon to be released “Star” on Fox, but since the earliest days of the epidemic the writer/director/producer has also been an HIV/AIDS activist.
“People know me as Lee Daniels the filmmaker. But they don’t really know of my early beginnings when I had a nursing agency prior to that, as I was directing theater,” Daniels, 56, tells A Turner Archives. “I had the first nursing agency under contract with AIDS Project Los Angeles over 30 years ago. I had people taking care of people with HIV because people didn’t want to touch them. So I lived on the front line. That’s a whole different life and something I’m really proud of.”
In 2009, Daniels brought to the big screen an HIV/AIDS story that no one wanted to talk about through the character of 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones played by then-newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who learned that her father had died of AIDS and that she was HIV positive.
“It began a conversation that had not been had until then—at that point it was considered a white gay disease, for sure,” Daniels says, recalling his own surprise upon discovering so many Black women and children when he visited Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City to do research. “I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just a gay man’s disease, but it was an epidemic that affected the African American community in a very big way—way beyond the gay sphere.”
As someone who has been involved in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his life and his art, Daniels worries about the current cultural and political climate. He recalls the 1980s—the fear, the stigma, the waiting for the other shoe to drop, the wondering when it was going to be him: “Everyone was dying around me—all of my friends. None of them did anything I did not do and more. It could have been me. That thought is never far from my mind.”
The reality of the upcoming presidential administration casts a pall over Daniels’ hopes to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The election of Donald Trump has brought a lot of those feelings rushing back: “It has been a very long time since I felt that scary feeling where OMG I’m looking over my shoulder and wondering what are we going to do?
“If you had asked me prior to Trump’s election, I would have said yes we could have ended AIDS in my lifetime. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen now,” he says. “I think we’re going to go backwards now. And that’s a travesty. And it cracks my heart. But, now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to step up. Now is the time to speak out. Now is the time to resist. Now is the time to become activists and advocates—in the streets, in the boardrooms, in the halls of power, on the printed page, on the stage, on the screen, and on the small screen. People need to volunteer. We need to contribute our talent, our wisdom, and our dollars. For example, one of my priorities is raising money for the Black AIDS Institute. No matter who we are or where we are, we have to do our part.”