By Sam McDonald

Among the many films that A-list Hollywood screenwriter Arnold Schulman helped create, 1993’s “And the Band Played On,” is unique in its blend of truth-telling and sharp social commentary.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and written by Schulman based on a book by Randy Shilts, it relates the story of the early AIDS epidemic and how politics within the scientific community blunted early efforts to stem the spread of the disease — costing countless lives.

The movie stars Matthew Modine, Alan Alda and Patrick Bauchau and includes appearances by Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin — even musician Phil Collins.

It won a slew of awards including two Emmys and netted Schulman a Humanitas prize in 1994.

“It has an all-star cast who volunteered to make the movie,” said Schulman’s son, Peter Schulman, a professor of world languages and cultures at Old Dominion University. “It’s also an extraordinary piece of writing. It went through maybe 60 drafts — maybe the Guinness Book of World Records winner for number of revisions. And the ODU library has them all.”

On Monday, Dec. 4, ODU will host an event called “And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.” The movie will be screened 6:30 p.m. at the Michael and Kimthanh Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium. The screening is sponsored by the University’s Department of World Languages and Cultures to celebrate the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s merger with ODU. 

Photo of a film script that reads "And the Band Played On."
Photo by Sam McDonald.

Following the movie, a panel will discuss the film and media’s role in promoting public health.

Panelist will be:

  • Mekbib Gemeda, vice president of diversity and inclusion, EVMS
  • Kate Hawkins, professor of communication, ODU
  • Najmeh Moradiyan-Rizi, assistant professor of film studies, ODU
  • Cathleen Rhodes, director of Gay Cultural Studies, ODU

The event follows World AIDS Day 2023, Friday, Dec. 1.

“The AIDS epidemic is an important and painful part of queer history,” Rhodes said. “AIDS activism galvanized and activated many queer people, but it also decimated the community. We cannot talk about the present or imagine the future without contending with the effects of AIDS on queer history.”   

Films and media have played a big role in shaping public opinions and reactions to the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, Moradiyan-Rizi added.

“The screening of ‘And the Band Played On,’ as one of the major films that addressed the AIDS epidemic in its early decades, will allow us to productively contextualize the early socio-cultural and political responses to this epidemic, in addition to the medical ones,” Moradiyan-Rizi wrote, “and to further put them in conversation with the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the need for global humanitarian actions that challenge marginalization and inequality.”

Hawkins said — as a health communicator, — she searches for ways to improve messaging so that people feel empowered and protected. “Reflecting on health communication at the time when the HIV/AIDS virus was first discovered will help us understand how far we have progressed — or perhaps have not progressed — in addressing health communication challenges.”

The idea for the movie screening and discussion stemmed from Peter Schulman’s recent donation to the university of a large trove of his father’s papers.

After Arnold Schulman died February 4, his son holed up in his father’s Los Angeles apartment to organize an enormous collection of scripts, plays, notes, and correspondence in preparation for the ODU donation. The work lasted deep into the summer.

His father had been a lauded screenwriter for 50 years. He had earned a pair of Oscar nominations, an Emmy, and contributed to classic films including “A Chorus Line,” “Tucker,” “Goodbye Columbus,” among others.

For any scholar of cinema — or American popular culture — it’s a tantalizing collection.

“There is a lot of film history that ODU is getting, as you can imagine,” Schulman said. He sent more than 18 boxes of his work, including drafts for what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s final film had she not died in the middle of it.

“Today, most Hollywood writers don’t work for five decades,” Schulman said. “They’re lucky if they get two.”

Schulman said his father wanted to work on “And the Band Played On” because AIDS wasn’t seen as a hot topic in film at the time. 

“It had substance, and it was an important message to get out,” he said. “His was interested in activism, defending doctors against the politics of it all, and fighting for the sick and against greed.”