Jason C. Stanley

ponderings of a dad walking humbly & seeking justice


Why ‘Rent’ Still Matters

rent-phm3vzmq-2n4Since the early 1990’s the musical Rent has inspired and motivated people to see the world around them as they never have before; to see themselves in others.

A few months ago, one of the local high schools performed the rock musical Rent. Megan and I attended the show as a number of students in the musical were in my youth group.  They had the audience sit on the stage, to be up close and personal; to be a part of the experience; to live in the story with the actors. It was so well received and popular that the school opened up the balcony at a reduced price to accommodate all the interest.

During the intermission, I overheard two women talking. One of them was expressing amazement that these high school students in 2014 had put together this 1996 Broadway musical about a time and issue that seemed to be so distant from high school students today. I thought to myself, this is what should be happening. Great art – in whatever form it takes – sparks conversation. Continue reading

Sermon: Yearning and Hoping

The Normal Heart (2014)

normalheartposterIn the 1980’s, the first case of what would later be known as AIDS was reported in the United States. The Normal Heart is HBO’s TV movie version of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks who has had enough. He has been in the closet for most of his adolescence and adult life, as so many of his friends have done. But, when his friends start dying, he becomes angry. This, at the time, unknown disease has to have a voice.

Julia Roberts is Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been submitting research papers to the scientific and medical communities for years. But, because the disease primarily affects gay men, it has been ignored. Emma’s anger is only matched by Ned’s. At times, though, it is a bit too much. Ned seems to alienate everyone, including the gay community. We know, from our side of history, that he is correct. Until the community being affected by the disease finds their voice and starts speaking out, it will be near impossible for change to take place.

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Philadelphia (1993)

In the 1980s, AIDS emerged as the leading killer of young adults. By the mid-1980s, it was the leading cause of death in men ages 25-44. In 1990, over 100,000 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today we know that AIDS cannot be transmitted by a handshake or a hug, or by breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive. But in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, those things were not known. When someone came into contact with AIDS or HIV, they were cautious, as if they were in a leper colony.  This is why Philadelphia is so important. A decade after the disease was identified, Hollywood took a risk in making a big-budget film about the disease.

It is the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who is a rising lawyer in a major and high-profile law firm. The audience is given the privilege of knowing that Beckett is being treated for AIDS. The law firm, however, does not know. The senior partner of the law firm gives Beckett a case that involves the firm’s most important client.

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Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Best Original Story, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling.

Update: Won Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto; Won Best Makeup & Hairstyling; Won Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey

Dallas Buyer's ClubIn 1985 Rock Hudson, the famed actor, learned that he had the HIV virus that births AIDS. Rumors abound quickly (and they still do) that Hudson was homosexual, which was the cause of the disease. As Dallas Buyer’s Club opens, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is playing cards in a rodeo locker room. Their playing board is a newspaper with the Hudson story.

This is the kind of details that director Jean-Marc Vallée provides in this film. At times they are so subtle that one may miss them in the first viewing. Nevertheless, it is the attention to details that make this film Oscar worthy. The film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Matthew McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto).

McConaughey and Leto both put their bodies through extreme measures to portray their HIV positive characters. The drastic amount of weight loss for a character can go one of two ways. It can be a huge distraction from the performance of the actor, or it can enhance the actor’s portrayal making the performance even more powerful. Here, McConaughey and Leto are the latter. The drastic weight loss only enhances the powerful performance they give, winning both actors Golden Globes.

In the scene where they are playing cards on Rock Hudson’s story in the newspaper, Ron makes every inappropriate comment possible about Hudson and his sexuality. The very first scene has Ron having sex with a woman at the rodeo. Right out of the gate, we know that this rodeo rider is arrogant and homophobic. He is fueled by cigarettes, liquor, and occasionally speed or coke. In every sense of the word, Ron Woodroof is the stereotypical, straight, white male.

Ron’s life, attitude, and story changes after an electrical accident at a Texas oil field. The doctors at the hospital report to him that he is HIV+. He is given 30 days to live. Ron cannot, and will not, accept this news. He is not Rock Hudson. His attitude, which was so common in the 1980s, was that if he was straight, he could not have AIDS. It takes some time before Ron accepts his reality, and is able to recall that he most likely contracted the disease when having an unprotected sexual encounter with two women at the rodeo, and one them was heavily using drugs.

Once accepting his disease, he works out a deal with a hospital orderly to get the new drug AZT. When that option is no longer one, Ron makes a trip to Mexico where a former American doctor is practicing medicine. It is there that Ron learns how dangerous AZT can be. And it is when we learn that the big pharmaceutical companies are using the epidemic to push AZT, even though it does not work as they say it does. Jennifer Gardner gives a mediocre performance as Dr. Eve Saks, who will be the only doctor in the Dallas hospital who stands up against the pharmaceutical push of the drug. It is a strong character, who cares deeply for her patients and the only one brave enough and bold enough to stand up to big pharmaceutical. Yet, Gardner’s performance of this strong character is limp at best.

DBC priestRon takes his health care into his own hands. He dresses up as a cancer stricken priest to smuggle drugs into the United States. He attempts to sell the drugs to homosexual men, but his arrogance and attitude get in the way. He meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual who is able to help Ron get in with the community. Ron’s friendship with Rayon is what breaks down Ron’s arrogance and attitude toward those who are different from him. It is through this relationship that Ron has his self-awakening moment. He stands up for Rayon in the grocery store when one of his former co-workers and friends makes unnecessary remarks to Rayon. Ron discovers his bravery and boldness.

Together, Rayon and Ron create a co-op called the Dallas Buyer’s Club. Individuals who are looking for better drugs for HIV and AIDS buy a membership into the Club that then gives them free medications. It was modeled after similar Clubs in other states. The pharmaceutical drugs that are being used, are not helping the patients. The medications that Ron brings in from all over the world, make a difference. Neither of them cure.


It is hard to say who redeems who in this film. Rayon’s presence in Ron’s life changes Ron for the better. Unfortunately, while the same can be true about Ron’s presence in Rayon’s life, the change is not quite the same. While Ron changes his behaviors (and attitudes), Rayon continues to use recreational drugs. Ron makes the commitment to change, Rayon struggles with what that commitment looks like.

As blogger Randall Golden pointed out in his post about the film, there is a very important message, subtle, but important after the end credits:

AIDS is not over. Access to treatment could save more lives.

AIDS is one of the greatest epidemics of our time. There are people who are still being mistreated, not getting access to appropriate medications, and who are being treated as outsiders. The call by Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves is such an important call. The men and women all around the world who are suffering from HIV and AIDS deserve our love. Just as Jesus had bravery and boldness to touch the leper, may we who claim Christ as Lord have the same bravery and boldness to touch those with AIDS.

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