This article originally ran under the name "The 'Other' Sheila Johnson" on BlackAIDS.org.
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.
SJ: Just a half-mile from the Capitol steps, we literally have another city. People are living in the shadow of the seat of the federal government who have no rights and no voice. People in D.C. have no idea about the tragedy in their own city. We wanted to be able to tell the stories of those people who are living beneath the radar. We also tried to show the work being done by unsung heroes and allow them to come to life.
How has the film been received?
SJ: Amazing, but the main reaction is shock. It's been a huge wake-up call. Even reporters are surprised by the extent of the problem. We had a screening in Washington, and I saw a reporter from a glossy Washington magazine walk out before it was over. I'm like, "Where're you going?" He said, "This is too painful to watch." I said, "How dare you leave here. You have to go back in there to see what's going on." He came back. But this is what I mean by "the other city."
And bad reaction?
SJ: The only negative thing that has happened is that members of the city council aren't getting it. In this city, nothing's getting done. [D.C. Delegate to Congress] Eleanor Holmes Norton gets it. She said the District ought to be ashamed of itself. Someone's got to be held accountable. We have a mayor's race going on right now. We don't know how it's going to come out. Whoever it is, we're going to move right on in there and do a private screening for this person.
What's your personal connection to AIDS?
You're a mother …
SJ: It scares me. We're seeing so many young people who are becoming HIV-positive. I have a daughter who's 24 and a son who's 20. I talk to them constantly. I think I scared my daughter enough. She's been with the same guy for four years. She said, "Don't worry, Mama, he's been tested. He's fine." It's my son in college that I worry about. I said, "Brett, you've got to understand that it's a dangerous world out there." We were buying supplies, and I bought this big box of condoms. I didn't know how else to [get into] his head. Later I checked his room. At least the condoms were in the drawer. These kids are having sex, and as parents, we've got to talk about it.
You were quoted recently saying you were ashamed of BET and don't watch it. Talk about that.
SJ: BET was our first mission. We wanted to put the voice of black America on the screen. We were going to be the Ebony magazine of television. This network was going to promote dialogue in black America. I wanted news programming in there. I wanted to talk about the issues. I didn't want the fluff pieces or just this superficial stuff. That's where I was going with BET.
It hasn't gone as well as I wanted, to say the least. Back then, people didn't really know me. I did that on purpose. I was trying to help the ex-husband. When that fell apart, I said I'm going to craft my own way. I'm going to start doing what I believe in.
And the videos?
SJ: BET is the biggest perpetrator. It doesn't cost anything to put videos on. You don't even have to think about it. It's the easy way out. But you can see the damage that's being done to the African-American community. We've got kids watching videos, day in and day out. They have no idea who they really are. They are thinking that they should go out and live like these people on the videos. I get ribbed on this, but I tell you, that is not the way the videos started out. I have been a very loud voice on this from day one.
Are you working on other film or TV projects?
SJ: Not just yet. But there are prospects. This is definitely not my last film project. I want to continue to work on the social issues that I care about. We have to start doing real journalism again. We have to tell our real stories.
Before it airs on television, The Other City will be screened in Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Chicago; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; and other cities. Check theothercity.com for updates.
Linda Villarosa directs the journalism program at City College in New York and is a regular contributor to The Root.