Sheila Johnson Has a New Vision

In a candid conversation, the BET co-founder talks about The Other City -- her eye-opening film about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C. -- and the BET years.

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This article originally ran under the name "The 'Other' Sheila Johnson" on

Don't call Sheila Johnson a billionaire. "I hate that," she says.

Technically, Johnson, the BET co-founder-turned-philanthropist, is worth only $400 million, according to last year's Forbes list of America's richest black folks. Recently she put $500,000 of that fortune where her heart is: The Other City, a film that shines a light on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C.

Johnson traveled from her Virginia home to Vienna last week to introduce the film to an international audience at the International HIV/AIDS Conference. The bulk of the estimated 25,000 attendees from around the world had no idea about the severity of the problem in this nation's capital. They see President Barack Obama and Michelle on television and think the chocolate in Chocolate City is strictly Godiva.

But the film's depiction of "the other city" presents makes it clear that HIV/AIDS is Washington's dirty little secret. The District of Columbia has the country's highest rate of HIV/AIDS -- higher than in a number of poor African countries. Blacks are the vast majority of those infected with and affected by the virus.

The Other City takes a hard look at the crisis through the eyes of several people who are living with it -- and dying from it. The film, which premiered last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, is scheduled to air on television in prime time, though Johnson and director Susan Koch are still hush-hush about the details. (HBO, anyone?)

Looking fit at 61 and sounding feisty, Johnson joined a group of African-American journalists for breakfast in Vienna to discuss her career as a film producer, the HIV/AIDS crisis in America and those infamous BET videos.

Why did you produce The Other City?

Sheila Johnson: I had been traveling around the world as a global ambassador for CARE and seeing the victims of AIDS in Africa, South America and other places. But then I'd come home to Washington and was really disturbed by the problem right here in my own backyard. It was easier and sexier to say, "I'm going to Tanzania and Kenya, and I'm doing this and I'm doing that." But I felt so guilty when I would come home.

Talk about the problem in D.C.