Last night I saw Dallas Buyers Club . Inspired by the life of an HIV-positive Texas electrician named Ron Woodroof, the film depicts Woodroof's mid-1980s efforts to sell alternative HIV treatments to patients who wanted them. At the time AZT was the only FDA approved treatment, and Woodroof was one of many people who believed this was a toxic option that benefited pharmaceutical companies more than patients.
But few people went to Mexico to obtain alternate treatments, and then illegally smuggled them back into the US. And few people flew to Japan to obtain interferon, also an illegal activity. In a career-making role, as many critics have noted, Matthew McConaughey portrays Woodroof doing all of these things.
The film is a timeless depiction of the age-old tension between following the law and following your conscience. Woodroof has done his homework about the validity of these alternative treatments, and is engaging in a protracted and defiant campaign of civil disobedience. Whether his means are justified depends on how much you value his ends. But there is no doubt that he is in a long line of US dissidents that includes people like Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In other ways, though, Woodroof is the exact opposite of Thoreau and King. He curses like the most foul-mouthed of sailors, and says horribly homophobic and racist things. He treats women as sexual objects. At first he denies having AIDS because it's a "faggot disease." But once he accepts this harsh truth, and once he encounters gay people as he establishes the buyers club, his attitude changes. In fact, Woodroof becomes very close to a transgendered individual named Rayon, played brilliantly by Jared Leto.
One consequence of this change is Woodroof's estrangement from his old buddies, who are just as homophobic as he ever was. When he touches them they want to wash their hands with soap...a reminder of just how brutal that period was (and sometimes still is) for people with HIV or AIDS.
Woodroof was given 30 days to live upon receiving his AIDS diagnosis in 1985, and ended up living for seven more years. Twenty one years after his death in 1992, his story has finally made it to the big screen to inspire future generations of activists. Slow in coming but worth the wait. As Dr. King, among others, reminded us, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."