The Normal Heart, the HBO movie adaptation from the 1985 play by Larry Kramer, depicts the AIDs crisis among homosexual men in the 1980s, and raises questions about homophobia, society, and empathy. Ryan Murphy, of Glee and American Horror Story fame, directed the movie, which stars Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer, among other big names. That such story matter as is in The Normal Heart has been adapted for television, even on HBO, speaks volumes about how far the world has come in accepting and understanding homosexuality, and also how far it still has to go.
The play’s script does not come at the issue subtly, or in the vein of an after-school special. It comes roaring at the audience; angry, hurt, and confrontational. The movie softens the blow somewhat by focusing more on the characters and their relationships, particularly between Bomer and Ruffalo, but the message is still the same. Why did the medical community take so long to respond? Why did the government and the media seem to ignore the crisis until it was right under their noses? How much did the gay community worsen the situation by refusing to take it seriously?
Ruffalo’s character, Ned Weeks, attempts to educate the gay community, but after such a long, hard battle for sexual freedom, they are reluctant to listen to lectures about abstinence and safe sex. The movie suggests that the health crisis is the fault of everyone and no one—that the violent oppression of homosexuals prior to the 1980s started a chain reaction no one could have predicted, and everyone watched happen without trying to stop it. All the while, each group blamed the other.
The Normal Heart shows how far the world has come in being able to look at this subject, to not shy away from it as ”too difficult” or “in the past.” That these questions are being asked, that answers are being sought says the world is ready to have conversations about homosexuality. Yet the movie also shows how far the world still has to go.
Many of the themes in the movie, from oppression to segregation to bullying, are not just relics of a past societal culture. Homosexuals are still disenfranchised. They continue to be held unequal according to the law in over two-thirds of the United States. Many countries, particularly in the Middle East, outlaw homosexuality. In some places, it carries a penalty of death.
Last year, the movie 42 opened in theaters across the United States, and moviegoers flocked to see it, praising it. How brave Jackie Robinson was to stand up in the face of discrimination! How good it is to know that awful time in history is behind us. When will the world be able to see The Normal Heart the same way? This movie is more than a history lesson, it is a mirror to the world. It is the Larry Kramers, the Matt Bomers of the world standing up and asking, “When will they see us as equals, too?”
Julia Roberts’ role in the movie drives the point home. As a polio survivor bound to a wheelchair, Dr. Emma Brookner reflects yet another societal sect once disdained and now admired for their bravery and persistence: the physically handicapped.
The Normal Heart certainly shows how far the world has come in terms of tolerating homosexuality as an inevitable part of culture. At the same time, it make painfully clear the long strides yet to be made in accepting homosexuals as equals in our society.
Opinion by Christina Jones