There’s a reason why the opening scene of Wilhemina’s War hovers on a cotton plant in the middle of South Carolina.
June Cross’ touching HIV/AIDS documentary focuses on how the epidemic has flourished in the rural South, impacting many whose family legacies were built on the particular crop through slavery, Jim Crow and even in current times.
One of those people is Wilhemina Dixon, an African-American woman in her 60s living in Barnwell County with her daughter Toni, who was diagnosed with AIDS, and her 15-year old granddaughter, Dayshal, who was born with the disease. Shot over five years, we follow Dixon as she struggles to navigate a crippling health care system, fights to keep her family healthy and tries her best to protect Dayshal from bullying and stigma.
And somehow she does that in the wake of so many obstacles: Low-literacy skills, working odd jobs like picking peas and doing lawn work to make ends meet and having to drive two hours to the nearest HIV specialist so that Dayshal can get care. Also, Dixon was surrounded by a lot of death in such a short amount of time, losing other family members to AIDS, her husband to cancer, her 90-year old mother to Alzheimer’s and a son to street violence. And then there is Dixon’s own health: She was recently diagnosed with hepatitis C from a blood transfusion she received when giving birth to one of her children.
But even in this tragedy, Dixon is a force to be reckoned with. Never letting her lack of education stand in her way, she taught herself everything she could about this disease, using that knowledge to educate others and empower her family.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know a lot, but I was never quiet about HIV and wasn’t going to let my girls live in shame about it either. I don’t have education and a lot of people looked down on me, but I love me and I wanted my kids to love themselves too, HIV or not,” Dixon told Hello Beautiful.
However, Dixon’s personal story of generational HIV and poverty isn’t rare or new. Yes, while African-Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, we account for a whopping 44 percent of new HIV infections each year. But it’s where Dixon lives that also puts her loved ones at risk. Despite the myth that AIDS in America is resigned to big cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago, it’s actually quite the opposite. Almost half of all people living with AIDS in the U.S. live below the Mason-Dixon line. This is the “new” epicenter of the epidemic.
So in the same manner of Lisa Biagiotti’s brilliant doc The Deep South, Cross spends a lot of time in Wilhelmina’s War exploring how the complexities of the rural South—stigma, isolation, poverty, homelessness, church inaction, lack of state funding and political complacency—continue to fuel the epidemic, impacting people like Dixon.
Cross successfully does this by interrogating the state of South Carolina, highlighting how tireless advocates are constantly butting heads with the unwillingness of Governor Nikki Haley, who refuses to address HIV in any meaningful way. Haley, a Republican, has practically eliminated HIV/AIDS funding in her state and has refused federal funds to expand Medicaid in her state. Not to mention, there are only three community based organizations in South Carolina and just one mobile HIV testing van to reach the 5 million residents who don’t have access to health care.
So one shouldn’t wonder why AIDS is the leading cause of death among young Black women ages 16-24 in that state. Or that South Carolina has the highest number of rural people living with the virus in the nation. And for Cross, who has covered HIV/AIDS extensively in her 30-plus year career and has lost countless friends and family members to the disease, working on this film was very eye-opening.
“The South is such a different place. Look at the infrastructure; there is no public transportation. How are people supposed to get around, especially to their doctor’s appointments? Look at funding. South Carolina’s entire state budget matches that of the NYPD’s budget. And then Haley who refused federal money to expand Medicaid. I mean, there are programs in Africa that are more progressive on AIDS than here in this state,” the award-winning filmmaker and journalist told HB.
What also makes this film so necessary is that Cross is shining a light on a population and region that have often been ignored in the AIDS film canon. And I say this not to undercut We Were Here or the Oscar-nominated How to Survive A Plague, two recent films that depicted the early days of the disease losing generations of gay men and how their fearless activism (with the help of allies) helped usher the lifesaving AIDS meds we have now. That history is undeniably important.
But the face of AIDS has morphed from a white gay male disease into a Black crisis. Therefore it’s imperative that we have more stories about how race, poverty, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity and the virus all intersect, especially hearing diverse voices from the South. Equally important, are more HIV/AIDS narratives where African-Americans transcend the role of mere “victim” and are shown as rebels, activists and heroes advocating on behalf of themselves and their community.
Thankfully, Wilhemenia’s War embodies exactly just that.
Most important, this film has the critical potential to change our minds about a disease that many of us have sadly forgotten. It could also invoke a lot of anger. Anger at a government that continues to turn its back on the most vulnerable in society. Anger at our media for pretending that this epidemic is over. Anger that too many people, mostly poor and of color, are still dying of AIDS and doing so without dignity. Anger that medical apartheid is a reality in a country as developed as ours. And anger mostly with ourselves for being as complacent as Gov. Haley.
Whatever the case, Wilhemina’s War is a much-needed call to action in 2016. I just hope we’re open and willing to hear its message.
‘Wilhemina’s War’ premieres on PBS’s ‘Independent Lens,’ Monday, Feb. 29 at 10pm Eastern Time. Check your local listing.