‘Our Sons’ Put a Human Face on AIDS Crisis
Howard Rosenberg missed the point of “Our Sons” (an ABC movie about two vastly different women brought together by the impending death of one of their sons from AIDS, Calendar, May 17). We need to fight not only the disease AIDS but also its associated diseases of hate, fear, ignorance and prejudice. “Our Sons” all too realistically underscores another tragedy of this disease--parents rejecting their dying children.
In 1987 I made a documentary called “Too Little, Too Late,” and in 1989, a short feature called “Mother, Mother.” I made these films to put a human face on AIDS, to foster compassion and understanding for people with AIDS and their families, and to call attention to the heartbreaking tragedy of family rejection. I deliberately focused on parent/child relationships so all viewers could find a personal way to identify with the AIDS crisis.
My films actually sparked real-life reconciliations. After seeing “Too Little, Too Late,” a San Francisco mother made peace with her son before he died. “Mother, Mother” compelled a Minneapolis man, who had been estranged from his parents for nine years, to contact his family. And after “Our Sons” aired nationally on ABC, a father in Philadelphia was so moved by the television movie, he reconciled with his AIDS-stricken child. The triumph is when we can make movies that might prompt even one person to overcome his or her prejudice.
We should praise ABC and (executive producer) Robert Greenwald for having the courage and the integrity to show a warm and loving relationship between two men, for exposing homophobia and hate, and for making this film available to viewers who might never watch a film about AIDS, let alone gay men. James and Donald (the sons in the film) loved each other. There was no beating around the bushes about that. When was the last time you saw a positive network movie about gay men and AIDS? Once every six years is not enough.
“Our Sons” may play “peekaboo with AIDS,” to quote Rosenberg, but certainly not with homophobia, the root of the prejudice which allows families to reject their sons. If the issue of AIDS has to be “approached from around the corner” or through the back door, better that way than not at all. Maybe because of “Our Sons,” the next film can risk the front door.
There are many stories of AIDS; just because ABC chose to tell the story of Audrey Grant, Luanne Barnes and their sons, why assume the network’s motive was to avoid the negative backlash of conservative pressure groups? ABC’s approach to the story, by directly confronting homophobia, is more likely to offend those conservative media watchdogs and advertisers.
I think ABC told this story because it is worth telling and has the power to touch a chord in people, to make them think differently about gay men and about AIDS. ABC did not censor or change William Hanley’s script at all or cower in the face of advertising dollars lost.
Rosenberg called “Our Sons” a “creative failure,” because it is “so rigidly predictable.” Yes, it may be predictable that Luanne agrees to go to San Diego. But, from the moment she first angrily confronts her dying son in his hospital bed, it is far from certain whether she will be able to overcome her deeply ingrained prejudice.
Her final scene with Donald, when she acknowledges the years of waste wrought by homophobia, makes a simple, heartfelt statement that understanding and forgiveness is possible. That quiet message alone is worthy of praise and ultimately gives the film its creative force.
I am proud to have co-produced this groundbreaking movie and honored that Robert Greenwald saw “Too Little, Too Late,” and from its real stories of unconditional love and forgiveness, and of rejection in the face of AIDS, developed a fictional story of four people bound by and forever changed by the tragedy. I hope “Our Sons” sets a precedent for more television films that can make a difference. What kind of world do we live in where it’s easier for networks to make movies about serial killers than about important social issues?
Rosenberg not only failed to understand “Our Sons,” but his short-sighted review might have helped nail the coffin shut for other films about AIDS. William Hanley’s script did not erase AIDS or ignorance about it or homophobia, but it deserves credit for trying. “Our Sons” might not have been everything Rosenberg wanted it to be, but it was a monumental and important achievement, and its heart and message were clearly in the right place.