A Once and Future Plague : HBO’s ‘Daybreak’ is an allegory that treats AIDS in a political context


Under razor-barbed wire that stretches across a dark alleyway in lower Manhattan, actress Moira Kelly rehearses a scene from the HBO movie “Daybreak,” premiering Saturday.

The film is an apocalyptic parable set in a future America, with its chilling premise being that victims of an AIDS-like epidemic are sent to secret concentration camps. The government uses fear of the plague, along with other social ills such as violence and unemployment, to make citizens give up their rights. In turn, the government promises to keep the peace.

In the scene being filmed on this day, Kelly’s character, Blue, is hidden from police by Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Torch, the leader of the resistance movement.

While taking a friend to be tested for the AIDS-like disease, Blue discovers that victims are not only “quarantined” but also imprisoned and starved, without medical attention. She runs away from the testing center and later becomes involved with the resistance movement after Torch hides her from pursuing police.

In the barely six-foot wide alleyway, where Blue and Torch meet, screenwriter-director Stephen Tolkin, producer John Bard Manulis and a crew crowd around camera equipment and monitors squeezed into the dark, dank space.


“Beginning four years ago, we took this screenplay to every major, minor and ‘mini-major’ film studio, along with several independents,” says producer Manulis of “Daybreak,” one of the first theatrical or television films to deal with AIDS in a political context. (The movie is adapted from the 1987 Off Broadway play “Beirut” by playwright Alan Bowne, who died of complications from AIDS in 1989.) “All of them turned us down, mostly because of the AIDS subject, saying it was too controversial and too political,” Manulis adds.

HBO became interested in “Daybreak” after an article in American Film magazine listed it as one of the 10 best unproduced screenplays around. Colin Callendar, executive producer of the “HBO Showcase” movies, believes that “Daybreak” fit the mold of topical, “high-impact” movies that the cable network has gained attention for producing.

“HBO encouraged us to emphasize the political message of the film,” says Manulis.

While the play takes place solely between the characters played by Kelly and Gooding, the TV movie makes Torch a leader of a resistance movement and adds other characters and locales.

“The play was primarily about sexual politics in an age of AIDS,” says writer-director Tolkin, who regrets not having been able to meet Bowne to discuss the play and its adaptation. “I added the message about taking action against a repressive regime.”

Despite the additions and changes, the TV version, like the play, includes a powerful, symbolic scene about love and lovemaking in the time of plague. “This was a difficult movie to do, particularly in terms of the emotional content of the scenes,” says Gooding (“Boyz N the Hood,” “Gladiator”) “Until he falls in love with Blue, Torch has been a rock, not showing any emotion because of other losses he’s had. The love scenes were difficult emotionally, and there was tension on the set while we worked out how we were going to play the scenes and film them.”

To Kelly (“The Cutting Edge”), “Daybreak’s” political message is: “Straighten up and fly right. That means, ‘Take care of problems today, don’t brush them under a carpet and don’t blame the problems of society on one group.’ As a society we need to get over the notion that AIDS is ‘caused’ by gays and the gay lifestyle. We have to learn to take care of each other, or we’re going to end up in an environment like the one in this movie.”

“We are very concerned with the treatment of people with AIDS in this film,” adds Manulis. “But we are also concerned with the disease in the movie as a symbol of the scapegoating of any group--like McCarthyism in the 1950s--to get people to give up individual rights and individual action.”

The film’s $3-million budget didn’t allow for “Blade Runner"-like effects or futuristic locales. But the producers said they actually preferred creating a more realistic setting, “one that viewers might imagine actually happening in a not-too-distant future.” A 100-year-old abandoned hospital was one such site.

Screenwriter Tolkin, who makes his directorial debut with “Daybreak,” adds Madison Avenue-like euphemisms, such as “Operation Helping Hand” for governmental programs that turn out to be malevolent. “If you’re interested in depicting how the tenets of America might be subverted, TV and advertising slogans obviously are a big part of our culture,” Manulis says. “In the mock TV commercials and slogans that are in the film, we were trying to create as specific an environment as we could for this futuristic society.”

“Daybreak” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.