Area Women With HIV Profiled in Documentary
Film Addresses Crisis in Black Community

By Robert Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006; A05

The audience in Northeast Washington gasped when the film star told his story.

Bill Duke, actor and director of "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit," explained how his goddaughter became HIV-positive. She was infected by her boyfriend, who had slept with another man, Duke told the group at the Ophelia Egypt Program Center.

Shocked that the disease could hit someone so close to his heart, Duke decided to produce a documentary tackling the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in black communities. The film, "Faces," tells the stories of six Washington area black women, among others, living with HIV and AIDS.

Duke brought the hour-long film to the center Saturday, in partnership with Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, to help ignite discussion among community advocates about AIDS. The disease, he said, could bring about the extinction of black people. Because the Washington area is home to many of the women appearing on-screen, he decided to show the documentary in the District first.

"It was empowering to be in this film," said Deborah Hagans, 51, an Oxon Hill resident whose HIV was diagnosed in 1995. "I can use my story to reach people. It's like being in the limelight."

Since her diagnosis, Hagans has received a master's degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. She works as a senior counselor at a nonprofit organization that deals with substance abusers in the District, some of whom have HIV.

The District, Hagans said, should be considered the HIV capital of the world. The D.C. Health Department last month estimated that up to 25,000 residents have HIV. The infection rate outpaces those of other cities in the United States.

Nationally, blacks account for more than 70 percent of new AIDS cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new initiative through the city Health Department seeks to test all residents ages 14 to 84. African Americans in the District, however, have trouble believing that the disease afflicts all levels of their community, said Jatrice Martel Gaiter, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington.

"Here, in Washington, D.C, we have one of the most educated cadres of African Americans on the planet," Gaiter said. "Doctors and lawyers have families and are at risk. But they are oblivious, and they believe there is some economic reason for the epidemic."

Saturday's event was the fourth and last screening of "Faces" in the District. It was also shown at the national NAACP convention. The film makes the case that prejudice against homosexuality in the black community pressures men who have sex with men to do so in secret. If they bring home disease, their wives can be unknowingly infected.

The movie also highlights black pastors in Los Angeles who address issues of sexuality, including one who encourages his parishioners to pick up condoms he has placed at the pulpit.

"The churches can be very helpful because they are the major organization in the black community," Duke said. "But it's going to be an uphill battle."

When Duke screened the film to a small group of area ministers last week, about half walked out during the condom scene, he said.

Saturday's audience, mainly staff members of nonprofit groups concerned with health issues, stayed in their seats. They nodded as experts in the film advocated increasing AIDS awareness in black communities. They gasped again at CDC statistics displaying HIV's reach into black communities: One in 50 African Americans in the District has AIDS. One in 20 has HIV.

"It's always good to highlight these issues for our community," said Christopher Garner, 16, of Southeast, who came to watch the film. "It shows that it's not a gay white man's disease anymore."

Duke said he will add more information to the film next month. He plans to distribute it to health centers and schools and hopes to get it shown on television. His biggest hope is that people who watch it will get tested, practice safe sex and take steps to prevent the disease in their communities.

"The intellectual time . . . it's over," Duke said. "We've got to do something. It is time for action."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company