10 Best Films About HIV

From "An Early Frost" to "Dallas Buyer's Club"

The best films about HIV serve as a historical record of the AIDS crisis from the earliest days. They also offer insights into what living with HIV means at different times, in different cultures, and to those who witness the disease from the outside.

These films also eerily echo many of the events and experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and even the mpox (monkeypox) outbreak of 2022. In the end, pandemics are not only medical crises but ones that can provoke fear, stigma, and discrimination that ripple through every sector of society.

Here is a list of the 10 best films about HIV, each of which shares a common, overriding theme: hope in the face of seemingly impossible odds.


'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 with a contextual backdrop that many other historical dramas about HIV lacked.

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

At its heart, the film is an honest and 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.


'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," a feature-length 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 affected by the disease, 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 those memorialized on the quilt.

The quiet 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 forgotten.


'Angels in America' (2003)

angels in america movie still
Angels in America (HBO Films)

Most films that cast their eye on the early AIDS crisis do so with an almost necessary purposefulness, 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, took a different mythic path. And, by doing so, remains one of the most powerful and poetic films about the epidemic.

It combines historic figures, biblical allegory, and a sweeping epic vision that captures the breadth of the human response to HIV in a way that few films have even attempted.


'The Lazarus Effect' (2010)

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

There have been a number of films depicting the AIDS crisis in Africa, some of which (like 2004’s Oscar-nominated "Yesterday") focused on what was then considered to be a monumentally hopeless situation.

A far rounder depiction can be seen in the 30-minute documentary, "The Lazarus Effect," which describes the impact of free antiretroviral drug programs on HIV-positive people 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 filmmaking style that allows the interviewees to speak for themselves without objectification or needless dramatization.

Even today, its sincerity and clarity ring 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 caustic anger that made it so memorable on stage. While the dialogue is occasionally didactic, the film feels as if it was made by someone who fully felt the 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.

Its 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-positive and gay, "An Early Frost" was credited with pushing AIDS 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 sponsors yanked their advertisements).

While the film has historical limitations in its portrayal of gay men and relationships, "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," the studio adamantly maintained that the film was not about AIDS or the AIDS crisis. And, in many ways, they're correct.

"Dallas Buyers Club" depicted the exploits of Ron Woodruff, an HIV-positive cowboy who started trading in non-FDA-approved AIDS remedies and suggested that Woodruff's contribution was seminal to eventual changes in the FDA's painfully slow drug approval policies.

The fact is that there were hundreds of buyer's clubs throughout the United States and changes to the FDA policy occurred years later, largely due to the public outcry and the work of activist groups like ACT UP.

The official change only came into being in 1992 with the enactment of the Accelerated Approval Program (which helped enable the fast-tracking of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Despite the Hollywoodization of Woodruff's story, the hell-raising star turn by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role makes it a journey worth taking.


'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 makes 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 a quietly devastating reminder of what thousands of other Davids had to go through.


'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 panoramic view of the epidemic in the early years, some of the attitudes and beliefs expressed in the film seem outdated by today's standards.

(Shilts himself was criticized for political beliefs, including his stance on the "sexual promiscuity" of gay men, which many in the LGBTI community found homophobic.)

Still, "And the Band Played On" is a worthy addition if only for the 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, it is undoubtedly the film that changed the social landscape at a time when the anger vented at the Reagan/Bush administrations was at a near-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.

Despite a few cringe-worthy scenes (including Denzel Washington's overtly manipulative homophobic rant), "Philadelphia" was the film that got people to sit up in their chairs about AIDS, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

6 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.
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  2. The National AIDS Memorial. The history of the quilt.

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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.