Seeing Red (and Reagan): AIDS Awareness in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
16 February 2014
Jean-Marc Vallee’s drama Dallas Buyers Club is a biographical drama about one man’s fight against AIDS and the social intolerance which surrounded the disease in 1980’s America. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a bull-riding, over-sexed, alcohol swigging, drug dealing all-American cowboy. He is also dying of AIDS, a disease he, like so many in 1980’s America, associates exclusively with male homosexuals. Prejudice, Ron initially disbelieves his diagnosis, but when his health declines, and the AZT he illegally purchased does him no good, Ron educates himself on the disease and possible treatment options from all over the world. Ron rather quickly learns of an effective treatment for his condition, but the vitamins and supplements he needs for improved health are not approved by the FDA in America, impeding Ron’s ability to treat his failing health. Thus, back into the world of drug dealing he goes and his clientele is a buyers club in Dallas, his hometown, co-run by his partner Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender also battling AIDS. Hitting legal obstacle after legal obstacle, and fighting a hard-hitting terminal disease on top of that, Ron devotes his life to legalizing his own treatment and educating society on positive and negative ways to treat AIDS.
The first recorded case of AIDS in America was in 1981, just four years before Dallas Buyers Club is set. Thus, by 1985, when Ron was diagnosed with AIDS and the film begins, there was little accurate common knowledge of the disease and few people who were not afflicted chose to look at this terrifying, terminal illness. With a strongly conservative administration in the White House, lead by Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), AIDS, a disease typically affecting the gay community, was ignored. It was not until 1987 that Ronal Reagan even acknowledged the disease publically, and not until 1991, ten years after the first recorded AIDS case, that the red ribbon, now the recognized symbol of AIDS awareness, became associated with the disease.
That said, Dallas Buyers Club, a movie about one man’s struggle with AIDS in the 1980s, captures how precarious Ron and Rayon’s situation is because they are dying from a disease their country seems hesitant to cure. However, Vallee knows his film will be watched by a contemporary audience, viewers who know, retrospectively, the flaws of the Reagan administration in not acknowledging and treating AIDS, as well as the symbol of awareness in the form of a red ribbon. Therefore, throughout the film, Vallee pays special attention to the color read, particularly as the film builds, and, through a well-place, subtle prop, addresses the Regan administration’s unethical response (or lack thereof) to the AIDS crisis.
Red is a significant color in Dallas Buyers Club, and becomes even more prominent as the film goes on. For example, with the buyers club up and running, Rayon begins to introduce red into the business. First, while Ron is on a business trip, she paints the walls cranberry mocha, making the club’s first home base red. Moreover, although often clad in pink, Rayon does were a particular black outfit with vibrant red flowers. The pop of red is umnissable and this floral red connects to a later use of the color. After Rayon dies, with the buyers club in their new home, Ron and Eve (Jennifer Garner) walk passed a small shrine to Rayon in one of the room’s corners. Aside from the glowing candles, the most noticeable items in the shrine are red roses, similar to the red floral pattern Rayon once wore on her outfit.
Furthermore, when Ron goes to superior court in San Francisco, the courtroom is empty, aside from the prosecution and defense’s tables. All the vacant seats of the courtroom are red. And, when Ron returns from his trial, one of the first AIDS awareness posters hangs in the buyers club’s house, almost hidden in the background as all the character applaud Ron’s effort in San Francisco; this poster is red. Lastly, when Ron rides the bull in the film’s conclusion he wears a red shirt. Again, the red ribbon did not exist when Dallas Buyers Club is set; however, contemporary audiences associate the color with the disease and the film’s frequent use of red supports the activism pursued by the protagonist, and, ultimately, pursued by Americans in their unified combat against AIDS.
Moreover, toward the end of the film, while Ron discusses business with a club colleague, another even more noticeable poster hangs in the background. The poster reads AIDSGATE, with the term printed over Ronald Regan’s face. In the late 1980’s, the start of very public backlash against the Reagan administration for its treatment of the AIDS crisis, people likened Nixon’s Watergate scandal to America’s scandalous avoidance of AIDS, and the subsequent cover-up of information as to not acknowledge the severity of the epidemic. The poster, which is only visible for a brief moment in one scene of Dallas Buyers Club, subtly calls attention to the government’s wrongdoing as connected to AIDS. Dallas Buyers Club is not a political film; in fact, the film is not about the AIDS epidemic and its national impact. The film is a biographical drama, and the filmmakers do not lose sight of that. Yet, this prop, which no character calls attention to and can be missed by viewers focused on the film’s action and, perhaps, not the film’s set, does take a very political stand and highlights the rising social consciousness of the time among people spreading AIDS awareness, like Ron, and fearlessly challenging the authority, lead by an administration who seemingly promote this medical crisis.
Be it through the consistent uses of red throughout the film, the AIDSGATE poster in the buyers club house, or a few other equally subtle yet intentional references to the AIDS crisis and AIDS awareness, Dallas Buyers Club uses what contemporary audiences know about AIDS to help viewers connect with Ron Woodroof and his seemingly impossible fight against AIDS and a government unwilling to help. The color red symbolizes and signals awareness, an awareness the audience knows will eventually happen in America, perhaps as a result of Ron and his perseverance. Also, the AIDSGATE poster symbolizes and signals the difficult struggle Ron and all those afflicted with AIDS in 1980’s America had to endure in order to overcome crisis and earn their rightful support and medical treatment.