This commentary by Patrick-Ian Polk is the third post in a series featuring prominent African-American leaders on HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, coordinated by the Black AIDS Institute and the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Check back each week for the next piece in the series!
It’s an obvious thing that HIV is an important subject when you’re talking about the black gay community. And I knew it was something I wanted to address in some way.
I saw a lack of representation of gay people of color in entertainment media, and being a black gay man, that’s an area that interested me. So I just stopped waiting around for Hollywood to decide to really portray our community and, as a producer and film maker, I tried to make a series on my own terms that explores who we are as black gay men.
A few years ago I did a movie I called “Punks,” where we dealt with the HIV issue. One of the lead characters was HIV-positive and was dealing with it. Another character was dealing with getting tested and going to a clinic to get counseling about it.
Now as the creator and executive producer of "Noah’s Arc," a television show about black gay men in Los Angeles, I can use interesting ways to incorporate HIV information and messages without being too preachy or melodramatic. My task was to find interesting ways to layer in HIV, so that it’s not just about getting sick and dying. It’s about living with it and dating with it, and dealing with the health system and the medical system and all these things.
It’s a hugely complicated issue to deal with, and I wanted to explore that in the show. Instead of having a lead character who was HIV-positive, I decided to have a character who worked in the field of HIV prevention and treatment. I modeled after Phill Wilson and the Black AIDS Institute. One of the main characters, Alex, is working for a more mainstream gay health organization and trying unorthodox ways of getting the messages out there to gay people of color.
But his methods are met with resistance from the powers-that-be within this organization, who are trying to toe the line of the conservative administration. And so, frustrated with that experience, he quits his job and opens his own organization called the Black AIDS Institute. And we see the organization from the beginning—when it’s just a dilapidated storefront with rats. He enlists the help of his friends to spruce it up and decorate and help to raise money. And then it’s a fully operational clinic, that’s offering free STD screenings, counseling and advice.
Alex has a doctor character whom we introduce later in the season. He helps to facilitate the medical aspects of the clinic’s business, and the doctor ends up in a relationship with one of the other main characters, Ricky. But it turns out that the doctor is HIV-positive himself. So, that was a way to weave in the issue of dating someone who is HIV-positive.
In the past, in film and television, characters with HIV/AIDS had this melodramatic, death-sentence story line. Now, due to the medical advancements, it’s become a manageable condition for people who have access to regular health care and follow the treatment regimens. So I really wanted to show that, because we haven’t seen a lot of that.
I’m always concerned about being too heavy-handed or being preachy. But I think as long as story lines are presented in a realistic and interesting way, in a way that we don’t expect, then we avoid the dangers of people being turned off. It’s usually when people feel like they’re being preached to or talked down to that they get turned off.
Weaving in story lines about HIV can be more affective when you have created characters that the audience can relate to and care about. When you feel like you know someone or you can relate to someone, and you’re suddenly going through something serious with them, then it means more to us as viewers.
So that’s what’s nice about being able to weave story lines into a television series. It’s not just about the fact that they’re HIV-positive or that they’re working on HIV; it’s about so much more. And the person who felt like, “Oh, I could never date someone who’s HIV-positive,” might see something differently. When they see Ricky on the show dealing with this situation and falling in love, trying to decide if he can go out with this person he loves but who has HIV—it opens the viewers’ minds too. They might change their minds about it and maybe they can date someone with HIV. Or someone who’s HIV-positive might get the message that, “You know, life is not over for me and I can still have a career and have relationships and be healthy and happy.”