“AND THE BAND PLAYED ON”—…and still plays


…and still plays

Amos Lassen

Randy Silts wrote a magnificent book on the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s. In 1993, it was made into a magnificent film. In both the history of AIDS is explored and t is indeed terrifying to know that it has been with us since 1959 when a blood sample from the Belgian Congo showed that a man had died from a mysterious illness. This is where”And the Band Played On” begins and watching in should be a requirement of everyone living where people have contact. I have never heard from anyone walking away from this movie feeling nothing. Even last night when I re-watched it, I did so with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I will never forget the lines when a politician says empathetically, “This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue.” That was said over twenty years ago and where are we today? AIDS is not so much a gay issue anymore as we have learned how to function sexually. Today it is indeed a human issue that many of us have forgotten about. AIDS is still a threat to the world although the gay community has gotten smart and learned how to deal with it. Now it is other sectors of the population who are feeling when we felt when dozens of us died every day. Maybe AIDS is no longer directly our problem but can what about those that have already succumbed to the disease. Was their death in vain? Can we allow ourselves to forget the beautiful members of the gay community who are no longer here?

When AIDS devastated America, I was living in Israel. It was not yet a problem there as we learned early on the value of self-protection. But I came back to visit in 1989 and I was the only one of my original group of friends still alive.

For the reasons why this happened I urge everyone to see “And the Band Played On”. Randy Shilts wrote this book while he himself had the disease. What a brave man he was. What he predicted—that 40 million people worldwide would be affected by the virus—has been proven true.

To be untouched by this film is to have no heart. To see how our government stood by while our young men died, killed by a mysterious disease, and not to do anything is tantamount to genocide. Perhaps if the government had acted when it should have, the disease would not have rum rampant.

The film allows making the acquaintance of “Patient Zero”. For those of you who do not know who he is then you most see the film. Evidence pouts to him being the beginning of the disease in America.

So where was America during the advent of AIDS? Probably the same place she was when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center? And I realize that this is a strong indictment but when you see the end of the film and the names of the dead, you will understand why I say what I do There were discoverable cases of AIDS in America as far back as the 1950s but it was not until 20 years later that the disease became an epidemic killing off our community. And that, Shilts states, is why America did not act. After all, we were just queers. But the film also states that although the majority of the damage done by the disease was in the gay community, the disease was of the kind that anyone could get.

This is a powerful film that can be viewed again and again. And each time I watch I marvel at how much it is relevant. It is just as sad today as it was when it was first broadcast.  The saddest thing is that the band that played then is still playing today.

The cast of the movie is without precedent—Matthew Modine, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, Phil Collins and many more. Modine is compelling and remarkable.

Even if AIDS is no longer the death sentence that it once was, we cannot allow us to forget those we have lost. It was the disease coupled with public ignorance, apathy and the laissez faire policy of the government that killed them.

The movie is told thoughtfully and from the heart as one sits in astonishment that something like this could happen in a world where educated people are the rule rather than the exception. The purpose of the movie is to show how far the epidemic had gone before anything was done about it. It manages to explain exactly what was going on during a period when those that managed to stay alive got NO answers as to why the people they loved died. We learn from the presentation of the history of the disease that we can survive but it galls me that those who died did not have that same option.

If anyone remains unmoved during the closing sequence of the movie, their humanity should be questioned. As Elton John’s “Last Song” plays, we see images and names of those we lost. We should weep for them and for our government.

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