BFI Flare film review: AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman
Use of historical footage9
Cathy Brennan | On 21, Mar 2021
Director: Dante Alencastre
Cast: Connie Norman
Watch AIDS Diva online in the UK: BFI Flare
Transphobic organisations in the UK media such as The LGB Alliance are eager to present a false account of history that erases the contributions of trans people, putting forward the idea that trans people have only existed for a short space of time. It is therefore of vital importance that we remember figures like Connie Norman. A trans woman from Texas, she came to prominence as an AIDs activist with the West Coast chapters of ACT UP in the 80s and 90s, before passing away from complications due to AIDS in 1996. AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman is director Dante Alencastre’s effort to make sure her legacy is not forgotten.
In terms of form, this documentary is conventional, comprising talking-head interviews with people who knew Norman, interspersed by bountiful historical footage. The latter proves to be the film’s greatest asset and speaks to the venerable legacy of AIDS activists from Norman’s generation. They took advantage of home video and public access TV to preserve the faces and voices of resistance, when the American government, and indeed much of the public, were content to let them die in obscurity. Copious footage of Norman giving speeches at rallies and enjoying herself in home movies give the audience a true sense of the fierce and kind person she was. Her confidence radiates in every frame and her words reverberate through you with their sheer intensity. In a reading of her column where she announces her AIDS diagnosis and that her time is now short, Norman tells the whole of yuppie culture in a low, furious voice: “You disgust me.” It’s devastating.
Norman’s activism and personal life are deeply interwoven, to the point where it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. She took part in direct action protests, confronted bigots on right-wing talk-shows, and published writing through her column Tribal Voices. Title cards announcing significant events in the history of AIDS activism give the film a sense of structure, placing Norman’s life within the context of a wider struggle.
This ability to maintain a broader perspective of the political arena, while still invigorating audiences with the intimacy of the personal, is a great source of strength. AIDS Diva remains focused on Norman as an individual activist throughout, yet consistently places her within a wider tapestry of progressive activism in the United States. This is most evident with comparisons made to Emma González.
Similar to the recent Landscapes of Resistance, Alencastre’s film stresses the importance that histories of resistance have to the contemporary moment. No matter who is in the White House, groups belonging to the religious right continue to get funded and lobby for homophobic or transphobic legislation. Films such as AIDS Diva will be a valuable tool to remind people that the struggle continues in hope and love.
AIDS Diva is available to stream at BFI Flare until Sunday 28th March. Book tickets here