Imagine going through your entire childhood having to hide your HIV-positive status because your mother wanted to protect you from being shunned, humiliated, bullied or abused like the late Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion in 1984.
Now imagine keeping that secret even as a college student while engaging in reckless and life-threatening situations. Then imagine making a documentary about the secrecy and the lies, when the entire world will serve as judge and jury for the admittedly horrible choices you made during a fragile period.
Mike L. Brown’s feature-length documentary 25 Years to Life tells the story of William Brawner, a young man who kept his HIV-status secret for more than 25 years. The documentary follows Brawner on his journey from childhood, when he contracted the disease from a blood transfusion, to his glory days as a popular student at Howard University—living dangerously and dating women without disclosing his status—to becoming an activist and founding the Haven Youth Center, a center for HIV-positive teens.
Brawner, now 35, is on a personal crusade to stop other HIV-positive people from making the same dangerous choices he made as a young man—choices that have isolated him from some of his former friends and lovers.
Viewers witness Brawner’s struggle with identity as he constructs an alter ego to numb the reality of being a young person with HIV living among other young people who are free from that burden. The idea of rejection still cripples Brawner, who decided to make the film to raise awareness despite the fallout it would bring. (The film’s timing comes as we mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.)
“My greatest fear was that people wouldn’t actually take the time to understand my story—that people will judge before they watch the film in its entirety,” Brawner told The Root. “Oftentimes, people get stuck on the mistakes I made by not disclosing my status. I accept responsibility for my actions, but my mistakes should not be my legacy,” said Brawner, who is well-aware that his actions were deplorable. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m by no means trying to minimize what I’ve done, but it’s not the whole story.”
It was the complexity of the story that made filmmaker Brown want to make the documentary. “I realized that it was a great story. Ordinary people living in an extraordinary circumstance,” Brown said in an interview with The Root. “As a filmmaker, it had all the elements that scripts try to have, but it had it in real life. I realized that it was the fear on both sides that made the story universal.”
Although Brown wanted Brawner’s story to be told in a way that reaches people, Brawner, a man seeking redemption through this film and other acts, wants to do that and more. Brawner is driven by a desire to help others and stop them from making the mistakes he made in his everyday life.
“My greatest hope for the film is that people have a better understanding on how not only to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS but how to educate others,” Brawner said. “HIV/AIDS is not just about those that are infected. It is also about those that are affected by HIV/AIDS.”
Those that were affected by Brawner’s decision not to disclose his status have come down on both sides of a precarious situation. Some have forgiven him, while others refer to him as an attempted murderer, which Brawner understands. “I say they are entitled to their own opinions. We all have things that we ask for forgiveness for,” he said. “I thank God that my decisions did not cost anyone their life and that no one was infected.”
Brown, too, says that Brawner’s friends are entitled to their feelings, whatever they are, but also believes that the film opened the door for some of Brawner’s classmates to show who they really are. “It gave people an excuse to be inflammatory anonymously,” Brown said.
Aside from Brawner, whose story is central to the narrative, another key figure in the film is Brawner’s mother, who is still paralyzed by the fear that her son will be rejected or punished by society because of his HIV-positive status. Viewers also see that she is wracked with guilt for failing to protect Brawner from an incident that changed the course of his life. It was the constant fear of death that drove her to spoil Brawner, whom she never expected to live a long life. Despite being spoiled, which contributed to his selfish and reckless behavior at that time, Brawner insists that he made this film for others as much as he did for himself.
“Documenting my life and making this film hasn’t just been about me. It’s about the lives that will be touched,” Brawner said. “It’s about really encouraging others to learn from my mistakes. We still have a ways to go. We only made a dent in the fight.”
The film is also a personal journey, one in which even the filmmaker learned things about Brawner that he had not previously known. “You never really know someone until you ask the tough questions,” Brown said. He also understands that you have to be ready for the answers to those tough questions. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions—and be receptive when you receive the answers.”
Brawner tries mightily to answer the questions and reminds viewers of the difficulty of accepting answers. Brawner, who has gone on to marry and become a father, has also written a book, Tragedy to Triumph, which chronicles his journey to living publicly with HIV.
Although he fears that his own son will be ridiculed or will learn of his father’s status from others before he can tell him, making the film was essential because breaking down the stereotypes and barriers surrounding HIV/AIDS is more important. Brawner stated, “I need people to understand HIV/AIDS doesn’t have a face or look. Nobody, I mean nobody, is exempt.”
Brawner is emphatic about making sure that people see beyond his misdeeds and realize what’s most important about his story, especially college students. “AIDS has no face. No color, no socioeconomic status. We need to treat every sexual encounter with a partner as if they are positive and take the proper precautions. Even under the influence, after parties or whatever we do to have fun in college, we still need to put our health and safety first.”
Find screenings and more information about the documentary 25 Years to Life here.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.