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Whenever a person gets sick, the first thing that person does is go to the doctor. This is a normal thing that happens in society. A sick person visits the hospital and expects treatment. When we go to see a doctor, we hold this doctor in high esteem and expect him or her to perform his or her duties. When our bodies begin to have issues, we expect the doctor to fix it the issues or point us to another doctor for help. However, in the mid 80’s, the scientific world was turned upside-down by a deadly disease. Doctors were no longer able to do their jobs because they couldn’t help the victims of a rapidly spreading plague; they could no longer fulfill their role in our society, and this caused a great panic. Throughout the world, scientists focused their efforts trying to isolate the virus without the cooperation from colleagues. Finally, French scientists worked to name this virus, only to have their work stolen by an American scientist named Bob Gallo. After years and years of research and over thousands and thousands of victims, then President Ronald Reagan used the word ‘AIDS’ in public for the first time. It was an epidemic that was recognized around the world and money was finally coming in to find a cure. Through a sociological analysis of the process, it was discovered the AIDS crisis was impacted on all levels. In the film ‘And the Band Played On’, fundamental problems in our society are exposed and their effects are shown during the AIDS crisis.
As in the film, ‘Karl Marx: Politics of Revolting Bodies,’ ‘And the Band Played On’ focuses on the issues of mind, body and power. Sociologist Michel Foucault, victim of AIDS, stated our bodies are not our own and this movie reflects that. AIDS victims are subject to numerous tests, probes, exams, and samples–they are turned from human beings to human guinea pigs. Institutions viewed the victims not as humans, but as machines through which profits could be made. Due to their sexual orientation, gays are isolated and shunned by society. Throughout the movie, lines of power are portrayed that intersect and push the individual in varying directions. The problems arise when these lines begin to collide and conflict as realms of influence that overlap.
One area that overlaps is the interaction of organizations. These organizations, both political and scientific, played a pivotal role with the discovery of AIDS. The World Health Organization, Food and Drug Administration, Congress, National Cancer Institute, Red Cross, and more all interact during the running of this movie. Some would say these organizations are crucial to our society and how they interact. However, the organizations conflict with each other more than they help. By far, the most important organization is the Centers for Disease Control; ironically, and unfortunately, this is also the most unstable and unfunded organization of them all. Though it is structured hierarchically, it certainly doesn’t fit Max Weber’s ideal type for a hierarchy.
As much as this society prides itself on its acceptance of minorities, we see that prejudice is alive and well in this movie. Many times during the movie, AIDS is referred to as the ‘gay plague,’ producing a stigma that separates gays from ‘normal’ people. Ministers are on TV preaching gays are suffering for their sins, but this prejudice is exhibited in a more subtle fashion. The lack of funding for AIDS research by the Reagan administration is one way, but there are countless others. AIDS is ignored by the straight community and down-played by the gay community. The media doesn’t report on about the issue until Haitians and newborns become infected.
As the movie goes on, a lot of medical personnel quit instead of helping AIDS victims. When a gay man is injured in a car crash, police decide to call a hazardous waste team. As a result, not only do gay men die at an alarming rate from an unknown disease, but those who live are forced into a subservient role by their society.
Due to the sexual nature of AIDS, it is difficult to ask questions of patients. One of the main conflicts of the story is over a prominent man who died of AIDS, even though this man was probably gay, his family is determined to maintain his reputation. Finally, after a search by the CDC, investigators find the doctor who treated him for AIDS. Obviously, in a situation where suspected AIDS victims must reveal their personal information and also must give their urine, blood, and semen samples, you can understand why victims are so wary of seeking medical treatment.
Probably the most depressing issue in ‘And the Band Played On’ is the controversy and conflict over the discovery of AIDS. Bob Gallo, who is head of the National Cancer Institute, is portrayed as a villain due to Gallo seeking the Nobel Peace Prize. His pursuit is relentless, and the public suffers as a result. His motives start out as positive and he supplies the CDC with crucial medical supplies so they can continue their research, but when the French discover the virus first, Gallo is extremely upset and demands to know what happened and why it happened. You can hear Gallo’s voice in this phone call:
Gallo: ‘Don Francis from the CDC sent the French samples? The French?’ Scientist: ‘Are you upset?’ Gallo: ‘Upset? No. What I don’t understand is how someone from my own side, someone from the US…’
Next, he cuts off medical supplies to the CDC and refuses them any other aid. A glimpse of his motives can be seen in the following phone call:
Gallo: ‘You sent blind samples to the French.’ Doctor Francis: ‘What makes you think they didn’t discover the virus?’ Gallo: ‘What makes you think I care?’ Doctor Francis: ‘I don’t understand the purpose of this call.’ Gallo: ‘That’s the purpose of this call.’
Gallo publishes the findings under his own name, and, as a result of his plagiarism, the case almost goes to court. If the case had gone to court, the process would have been tied up for several years in a legal battle. Thankfully, the crisis is averted when the two sides decide to compromise. However, several critical weeks were lost and damage to the reputation of the scientific community as a result of this controversy cannot be repaired at this point.
In conclusion, the search for AIDS changed from what was a medical issue to a scientific problem as a result of the conservative political climate, prejudiced society, the obstructions – legal, monetary. It was clear from this movie, the view of sociology is demonstrated as the director depicts both high level conflicts of science versus the industry, the rights of society versus the right of the individual, and the interactions between scientists, lawyers, the gay community, politicians, and other people. At the same time, this movie depicts the extraordinary, efforts of men like Don Francis, Harold Jaffey, and Bill Daryl. All in all, ‘And the Band Played On’ gives a real and hard-hitting look at the problems of our society, but at the same time, gives us hope that these issues may one day be resolved.
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