Review: '25 To Life' Tells the Cost of Keeping HIV a Secret for Nearly Three Decades
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Review: '25 To Life' Tells the Cost of Keeping HIV a Secret for Nearly Three Decades

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There’s a scene in "25 To Life" where William

Brawner prepares to attend Howard University’s homecoming after years spent

away from campus. He agonizes over what to wear as his family looks on. "I’ve

got to walk on Howard’s campus being the dude with HIV, with millions of

people. That’s why I’ve got to get cute," he says. "They have to know

that I’m still here."

For over 25 years, Brawner kept his HIV-positive status a

secret from nearly everyone in his life. After contracting the virus from a

blood transfusion as a child, his mother advised him not to tell anyone at

school about his status or the medications he was taking – a choice that

extended well into adulthood, even throughout his years as a popular and

promiscuous student in college. "25 To Life," the debut feature

documentary from Mike Brown, tells the story of how Brawner contracted HIV and the

cost of keeping his secret, as well as his experience going public and his

quest for redemption as an HIV/AIDS educator with an HIV-negative wife.

In straightforward interviews with Brawner, his family,

friends, and old classmates, we hear about the fallout from his decision to

expose his secret, but we also learn about the attitudes that led him and his

family to keep mum in the first place – overwhelming fears and preconceived

notions about what was at first called GRID (gay related immune deficiency). We

also see how Brawner’s dangerous secret affects his psyche, expressed in a

constant drive to be seen as attractive and popular.

Unlike many films dealing with HIV and AIDS, where the story

centers on either the physical toll of the disease spectrum or heroic activism

surrounding issues, "25 To Life" hones in on the stigma surrounding

HIV/AIDS in the community and the mental and emotional toll it takes on those

living with it. Brawner isn’t painted as a hero or an object of sympathy; on

the contrary, the film shows him to be a deeply flawed individual who makes a

series of dangerous and damaging decisions, looks at why he made those

decisions, and in so doing helps answer the question of how HIV/AIDS has become

such a far-reaching epidemic. This is the biggest win for "25 To Life"

– that instead of aiming simply for inspiration or tears, it aims for honesty.

Even after Brawner comes to terms with the people he’s hurt

over the years, tries to make amends, and becomes a counselor with his own

youth center in Philadelphia, there’s still a healthy dose of judgment heaped

on him as he tells his story across the country, as if it’s the only one of its

kind. But if HIV/AIDS

statistics tell us anything, it’s that Brawner’s story isn’t unique; that

there are in fact scores of people living with HIV and full-blown AIDS who,

whether through ignorance, irresponsibility or fear, go on infecting others. "25

To Life" gives an even-handed look at the issue. The film is a compelling

watch and an effective educational tool.

"25 To Life" is in theaters now. Find show times and tickets HERE.

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