10 Best Films About HIV

The best films about HIV serve as a historical record, bringing to life the struggles and emotions that remain as relevant today as they did then. Here are the 10 best.


'How to Survive a Plague' (2012)

how to survive a plague movie clip still
How to Survive a Plague (HBO)

This sweeping, Oscar-nominated documentary rightly deserved the many accolades it received upon its release in 2012. Its clear-sighted and often unforgiving depiction of the early days of the AIDS epidemic provided the film a contextual backdrop and clarity that many films, including "Dallas Buyers Club," simply lacked.

In doing so, the filmmakers achieved something more than just a historical record about the rise of ACT UP and the AIDS activist movement in the United States.

It's an incredibly moving portrait of the rage, loss, and hope felt by those who refused to sit on the sidelines even when faced with their own impending deaths. Without a doubt, "How to Survive a Plague" is a must-see. 


'Common Threads' (1989)

Common Threads AIDS Quilt
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (HBO)

The importance of the Names AIDS Memorial Quilt, a massive community activism project conceived in 1985, is sadly vanishing from the public consciousness.

"Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," an extraordinary documentary by filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, remains one of the most impactful films about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Told from the perspective of those infected, as well as their parents and loved ones, the power of the documentary lies in the fact that many of the people we meet in the film will soon be among the dead memorialized on the quilt.

The quiet, almost suffocating despair that pervades the film is often overwhelming, while the final laying of the quilt—filling the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C.—packs an emotional punch that can neither be easily shaken nor forgotten.


'Angels in America' (2003)

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Angels in America (HBO Films)

Most films that cast their eye on the early AIDS crisis do so with an almost necessary artlessness, raw in their depiction of human loss and the cruel failings of governments and humanity.

"Angels in America," the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner, remains one of the powerful and poetic films about the epidemic.

It combines historic figures, biblical allegory, and a sweeping scope that captures the breadth of the human response in a way no other film can. A truly monumental piece of filmmaking.


'The Lazarus Effect' (2010)

woman showing a picture of herself from the lazarus effect film
The Lazarus Effect (HBO)

There have a been a number of films depicting the AIDS crisis in Africa, some of which (like 2004’s Oscar-nominated "Yesterday") succumbed to all-too-easy melodrama or one-dimensional characterizations of cultures that simply don't ring true.

A far rounder and more honest depiction can be found in the 30-minute documentary, "The Lazarus Effect," which describes the impact of free antiretroviral drug programs on HIV-infected individuals in Zambia.

Produced by Spike Jonze ("Her," "Being John Malkovich") and directed by music video director Lance Bangs, the film benefits from a pared-back style of filmmaking which allows the interviewees to speak for themselves without either being objectified.

Sure, it's almost strategically uplifting—and something of an advert for the (RED) organization—but its sincerity and clarity remains doubtless and true.


'The Normal Heart' (2014)

movie still from the normal heart
The Normal Heart (HBO Films)

This highly charged HBO production serves as something of a companion piece to 2012's "How to Survive a Plague" in its telling of the early AIDS epidemic and the emergence of the activist group, ACT UP.

Based on the Tony Award-winning 1985 play by ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, the film retains much of the anger and caustic immediacy that was so memorable on stage.

While the dialogue is occasionally didactic and the narrative is far too choppy and episodic, the film feels as if it was made by someone who fully felt the full weight of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Capped by awards-worthy performances from Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and Joe Mantello, "The Normal Heart" beats fully and richly.

A worthy companion piece is the 2015 HBO documentary "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger," which paints a less sanitized (and arguably more compelling) portrait of the playwright and activist.


'An Early Frost' (1985)

early frost movie poster
An Early Frost (NBC Productions/The Criterion Collection)

This 1985 television movie was considered a landmark at the time of its release and rightly so. Broadcast on NBC in 1985, "An Early Frost" was the first major film to dramatize the AIDS crisis in America, winning numerous awards and garnering an audience of over 34 million viewers.

Telling the story of a young attorney who decides to inform his parents that he is both HIV and gay, "An Early Frost" was credited with pushing HIV into the public consciousness at a time when stigma and prejudice ran high (so much so that the network lost $500,000 in revenue when jittery sponsors pulled advertising the first time it ran).

While some elements of the film don't hold up as well after 30 years, "An Early Frost" still remains genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking.


'Dallas Buyers Club' (2013)

dallas buyers club movie still
Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Films)

When marketing the 2013 film, "Dallas Buyers Club," many in the production adamantly stated that the film was not about AIDS. And, in truth, they're largely correct.

Depicting the exploits of Ron Woodruff, an HIV-positive cowboy who started trading in non-FDA-approved AIDS remedies, "Dallas Buyers Club" was simply too good of a story not to be told.

The filmmakers may have taken a few historical liberties in the dramatization of Woodruff's tale (and took the easy way out by portraying FDA officials and AIDS researchers as cartoonish buffoons).

But you can’t help but revel in the hell-raising star turn by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. He sells the film and, in the end, you can't help but buy.


'Longtime Companion' (1989)

Longtime Companion (MGM Home Entertainment)

Although a number of theatrical films preceded it (among them, the impressive "Parting Glances" in 1986), 1989's "Longtime Companion" is credited with being the first wide-release film to chronicle the AIDS crisis in America.

Spanning the years 1981 to 1989, the film benefited from strong cast performances, a sensitive script by Craig Lucas, and astute direction by Norman René

While the episodic nature of the storyline doesn’t hold up all that well at times—making the film feel more like a time capsule—the scene where David (played by Bruce Davidson) tells his dying lover that "it's alright to go" remains as haunting and quietly devastating as ever.


'And the Band Played On' (1994)

And the Band Played On movie still
And the Band Played On (HBO)

 Like "An Early Frost" before it and "Angels in America" after it, "And the Band Played On" was considered something of a television landmark at the time of its broadcast.

Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Randy Shilts, the film tells the story of HIV/AIDS from the discovery of the first cases in Africa in 1976 through the political, social, and scientific upheavals that marked the 1980s.

While the film provides a compelling, panoramic view of the epidemic in the early years, there remain moments of preachiness that have become even more dated over time (due, in large part, to weaknesses in the sourcebook itself).

Still, "And the Band Played On" is a worthy addition if only for the ambitious, near-epic scale of the film and performances that linger in your memory long after viewing.


'Philadelphia' (1993)

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Philadelphia (TriStar Pictures)

"Philadelphia" is the film included on almost every top 10 list about HIV and for good reason. Whether you like it or loathe it (yes, there are people who do), it is undoubtedly the film that changed the social landscape at a time when the anger vented at the Reagan/Bush administrations was nearing boiling point.

Anchored by an affecting performance by Tom Hanks, the film's impact in 1993 was undeniable, logging over $200 million in box office receipts and winning two Academy Awards.

Yes, the film is unerringly safe and manipulative in the way that only Hollywood "issue films" can be. Yes, it played out more like a Frank Capra movie than an insightful social drama.

And yes, a few scenes are still pretty cringe-worthy. (Watching Denzel Washington's character explain homophobia to his on-screen wife is a particular jaw-dropper.)

But, these caveats aside, "Philadelphia" was the film that got people to sit up in their chairs, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wright J. Only your calamity: the beginnings of activism by and for people with AIDS. Am J Public Health. 2013;103(10):1788-98. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301381

  2. Fee E. The AIDS memorial quilt. Am J Public Health. 2006;96(6):979. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.088575

  3. Mullard A. Underground drug networks in the early days of AIDS. Lancet. 2014 Feb;383(9917):592. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60208-7

  4. Darrow WW. And the Band Played On: Before and after. AIDS Behav. 2017;21(10):2799-806. doi:10.1007/s10461-017-1798-2 

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.