Once in a while, a movie makes you want to be a better person. 5B, which tells the story of the first dedicated AIDS ward in the United States, is one of them. Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss’s documentary pulls audiences into the early years of the epidemic, when HIV-AIDS (initially referred to as “gay cancer”) was a deadly mystery that terrified medical professionals and the gay community alike. In the early ‘80s, doctors would wear hazmat suits and gloves to treat AIDS patients, orderlies would refuse to deliver their food and hospitals would quarantine them far from other patients. This dehumanizing treatment infuriated San Francisco General nurse Cliff Morrison, who recruited a group of likeminded nurses from around the country to build Ward 5B. With the hospital’s blessing and in the face of backlash, 5B nurses cared for their AIDS patients (double stigmatized because of their homosexuality) as human beings, touching them with bare hands, opening family visitation rights to their partners and making sure they did not die alone.
The incredible courage and compassion of these nurses, told in 5B through their own words, is just as inspiring today as it was in 1983. Among those who were moved by the film: Oscar winner Julianne Moore, who saw AIDS decimate her own community when she was a young actress in 1980s New York City. Moore, who has been supporting the film at the festival circuit and media events (5B is presented by RYOT, a Verizon Media company), teamed up with Morrison to speak with Yahoo Entertainment about activism, fighting for human rights and where to find hope for the future.
Yahoo Entertainment: Julianne, you’ve been very outspoken always, but particularly in the Trump era, about gun violence, about sexual assault, about the injustices faced by women. You’re the only person I’ve ever heard say that actresses are hungry all the time.
Julianne Moore: Ha! That was a long time ago. It was a very kind of flip comment, you know?
But I love that you are not afraid to speak truth to power. Why do you think other people who are in the public eye are afraid to speak out about these issues?
Moore: I don’t know. I can’t speak for anybody else. It’s funny, because a young actor recently asked me about the role of actors and activism, and whether there’s some sort of interplay. And I said no, obviously no. Being an actor is one thing and being an activist, I really think, is about being a citizen. I think we have to take responsibility for our community. And what’s great about living in the United States is that we can. We have freedom of speech here. We can say, this is not right, this is what I believe. That’s what I try to say to my children: This is a personal responsibility.
Cliff, when you created Ward 5B, the cause of AIDS still wasn’t known. The nurses in the film talk about signing on, knowing that they were at risk for contracting this disease that initially had a 100 percent fatality rate. What helped you and the other nurses get over that fear?
Cliff Morrison: I can speak for myself, but I think to some degree I can speak for them, because I did bring them on. I hired them because of who they were and where they were coming from at that point in time. It was all about the fact that we were professional providers, we went into a profession that said that you don’t look at your patients as being different and separate, and that you love everyone, and that you care for everyone. And it’s universal. To me, at the time maybe it seemed naive, but there just wasn’t a question. This [treatment of AIDS patients] is not right. This is not what we’re supposed to be doing. And I just wanted to change that.
You both experienced the AIDS era. I think it’s hard for those who weren’t there to comprehend the degree to which we lost a generation of people, of artists, in just a few years. Is that something that either of you talk about with younger people?
Moore: I do with my kids, yeah. When I moved to New York in 1983, I was 22, I’d just graduated from college. And very quickly in the ‘80s, you watched all of these young people become ill and die very quickly. And it was scary. It was really scary, and it felt dangerous. And so I’ve mentioned it to my kids just to say, “Hey, this was something that it seems like it was a long time ago, but it wasn’t.” And as Cliff has pointed out, AIDS still exists. We may have dealt with it more successfully in the in the U.S., but in countries all over the world, people are still struggling.
5B speaks to a question that’s still very relevant now, which is, how do we help people to see those who are different from them as human beings who are worthy of care?
Morrison: I think you have to play on people’s basic inner instincts, and focus on what we have in common and what’s not different about us. And when you start looking at it that way, you see that there’s not a lot of differences. And then also, look at the lessons we’ve already learned. We’ve had these wonderful opportunities within our lifetime with civil rights. We’ve come so far. And then all of a sudden, you turn around and you see all of this divisiveness and hatred and bigotry. We have to change all of that. And so I’m hoping that will be one of the messages of this film.
Moore: I think Cliff is exactly right. When you view someone as “other,” then they’re not quite human to you. In my community, the people who were primarily being affected by HIV and AIDS, were people that we were working with. They were our peers. They were our colleagues. So I think when you’re in a situation where that person is your friend, you have an opportunity then to say to everybody else, “Hey, this person is deserving of care and love and attention and compassion.” The reason I love this film is because it demonstrates that so beautifully. And this is a time when people really didn’t know what this disease was, and what the ramifications were. And these individuals in 5B stepped up and really set an example for everybody else.
Cliff, what can people who see 5B do to continue the work that you began in 1983?
Morrison: I think just being informed, paying attention to what’s going on around us, having an opinion, not just accepting what someone is saying to you. Let’s question things. Let’s look at access to care. I mean, I think healthcare is still as big an issue, or bigger now, than it was in 1983. So let’s make it an even bigger issue.
Moore: With activism, it’s really important to find the thing that speaks to you. As Cliff says, if you’re informed, if you’re paying attention, you can see where people’s rights are being infringed on and really speak out about it.
It’s so easy to feel hopeless in our current political climate. Where do you find hope?
Morrison: For me, I find hope in people. I really, truly believe in the American spirit. And I think it’s still there; I think that sometimes we just have to pick at it a little bit. But it’s there. We’re Americans, we’ve always been innovative, we’ve always moved forward. And we’re very progressive, and I just have faith in where the American people will go in the future. I have to have that hope and I’ll hang on to it as long as I live.
Moore: This is a government by the people and for the people. First of all, it’s important that everybody vote. I work with Everytown for Gun Safety, and I’m always inspired by the people who come out at the marches and the people who are active and show up the state legislatures and protest. I see a community around me of people who are very, very engaged. So I’m very, very hopeful about everybody in this country.
AIDS Epidemic, 1980s
Members of the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee (CSLDC) carry a banner through a street in New York City, USA, June 1983. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
CANADA – JANUARY 01: Guards fear AIDS: Prison guards argue they need better protection against inmates with AIDS or related diseases. (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – AUGUST 18: MAYOR KOCH SHAKES HANDS WITH HOSPITALIZED AIDS VICTIM, Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler Joins Mayor Koch at bedside of AIDS victim Peter Justice., (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
CANADA – JUNE 09: Probing deadly illness: Dr. Jay Keystone; a member of a team trying to get money to study the disease AIDS; says it’s claiming relatively few victims but appears to be spreading. (Photo by Bob Olsen/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
An AIDS protection pack from the Rajneesh Medical Corporation containing latex gloves, a condom and HR lubricating jelly, Oregon, USA, circa 1984. This image was taken in the hotel room of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho. (Photo by Kypros/Getty Images)
PARIS – APRIL 4: (From left to right) Luc Montagnier, Jean-Claude Chermann and FranÃ§oise Barre-Sinoussi, the three Franch scientists who helped to discover the causes of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency syndrome), in Pasteur Institute of Paris on April 4, 1984, the day after the announcement by American Health minister. The new virus discovered by these scientists is called LAV (Lumphadenopathy-associated virus). Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier shared the Nobel Medicine Prize on October 6, 2008 for their discovery of the HIV virus, along with a German scientist for his groundbreaking research into cervical cancer. (Photo by Michel Clement/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 12: Made by Wellcome, 3′-azido-3′-deoxythymidine (AZT), was also known as zidovudine in the UK. AZT is a drug used to treat HIV, the virus which an lead to AIDS. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
A patient with AIDS, at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, 1985. (Photo by Michael Ward/Getty Images)
CANADA – DECEMBER 11: Members of the AIDS Committee of Toronto meet at their headquarters (Photo by Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Aids Victim Ryan White, 14, banned from Kokomo, Ind., high school because of disease, and actress Mary Beth Hurt. (Photo By: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Members of the People With AIDS (PWA) movement carry a banner during the Gay Pride parade in New York City, USA, June 1986. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
Aids patient Paul Keenan is assisted by volunteer Lorna Kelly at St. Clare’s Hospital. (Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images)
AIDS VICTIM Priscilla Diaz is reunited with children Jasmin, 7, and twins Saul and Christian, 5, at her Bronx home. A fourth child, Milton, 15, is due home shortly. Weak and in pain, Diaz, 36, had to send her four children to live with relatives in Miami and Puerto Rico last December. Loneliness only worsened her suffering. But a caring Dr. Carol Harris and Nurse Marge Fenn of the Bronx Municipal Hospital Center helped arrange the tearful reunion yesterday. Hospital officials said that Diaz contracted AIDS from her husband, a drug abuser who died of the disease last April. (Photo By: Jim Hughes/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
A Buddhist monk tends to an AIDS patient at the Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu buddhist temple in Lop Buri which provides care for those dying with the disease, Thailand, circa 1987. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Buddhist monks attend the funeral ceremony of a deceased AIDS patient at the Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu buddhist temple in Lop Buri which provides care for those dying with the disease, Thailand, circa 1987. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
President Ronald Reagan visits National Institutes of Health, where he holds a 14-month old baby with AIDS, Bethesda, Maryland, 1987. (Photo by Pete Souza/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
March 10, 1987 Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston Location: Harlem Hospital, New York City CAPTION: A young brother and sister, who can not be identified, are among the many AIDS victims at the Harlem Hospital in New York. Their mother abandoned them after birth, never to return.
March 18, 1987 Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston LOCATION: The Harlem Hospital, New York City CAPTION: A child is tethered to a door knob in the AIDS pediatric ward.
Each morning with his breakfast Michael May opens a bottle of a drug called AL-721 and spreads it like margarine ona piece of bread. It’s unbelievably simple, the stuff is extracted from egg yolks. A year ago the 40-year-old chorus and orchestra leader was too weak to get ou tof a wheelchair, a fungus had spread through his arms and legs, he had pneumonia and he knew he was going to die of AIDS. Now he is an AIDS patient with a rare story (Photo By: Gene Kappock/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
If You’re Dabbling in Drugs, 1989. American Public health poster for AIDS. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
CANADA – JUNE 28: Poster campaign: Posters on TTC shelters are part of a campaign to increase awareness about AIDS. Ontarians believe fear of the disease will lead to longer marriages. (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
December 23, 1987 Washington Post photo by Fred Sweets Location: 1336 Harvard St., NW. CAPTION: Alex Compagnet, president of Salud, a D.C. health organization, teaches a class on AIDS designed for Hispanics.
Members of Act Up = Aids Coalition to Unleash Power hold up signs and placards during the Gay and Lesbian Pride march, New York, New York, June 26, 1988. (Photo by Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
CANADA – JUNE 28: Ron Lentz: Nurse with AIDS returns to work at Toronto Western Hospital tomorrow. (Photo by Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – OCTOBER 8: Spectators linger to look at individual handmade panels of the 8,288 that make up the AIDS quilt in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 8, 1988, its final stop in the year-long national tour. Each panels honors a victim of the disease. The quilt has grown fivefold while traveling to more than 20 cities. (Janet Knott/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
CANADA – OCTOBER 18: Preventing AIDS: Bleachman shows how drug users can sterilize needles. (Photo by Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
A Man Who Shoots Up Can Be Very Giving, 1989. American Public health poster for AIDS. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
DEC 11 1988; Operating room nurse; Kimberly Smith; double bags (uses two plastic bags) all of the supplies used in surgery of a ‘blood and needle risk’ patient.; The patient was not an AIDS patient, but the patient was a known IV drug used so DGH uses percausion. The room and the tools had to be scrubed with Hi-Tor a germacide detergent.; blood and needle risk requires more cleaning time; (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
LaToya Jackson reaches out to a patient in pediatric ward of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital yesterday. She served breakfast to children in the huge South Bronx hospital and announced that she’s planning a 1990 concert to benefit an AIDS hospice for children at Bronx-Lebanon. It was her last stop here before taking off for Europe to finish work on a new album. (Photo By: Jack Smith/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
None of These Will Give You AIDS, 1987. New York State Department of Health Public health poster for AIDS. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
AIDS medicine smuggler Francisco Ortega, of Santa Ana, has been taking thousands of dollars worth of donated recycled AIDS medicine from Orange County and Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico to AIDS patients who cannot afford the lifeÂsustaining drugs. AIDS clinic doctors and managers credit the ‘mercy smugglers’ with helping improve the healthÂand brightening the livesÂof hundreds of poor patients who either cannot afford or don’t have access to the most advanced medication. Here, Ortega drops off the medicine at an AIDS outreach center in San Diego, which will then be transported across the border to BiÂNational AIDS Advocacy Project and Casa Hogar Las Memorias in Tijuana. (Photo by Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Daily News Front page April 9, 1992 Headline: ‘I’LL GO FORWARD – ASHE FACES DOWN AIDS Arthur Ashe(Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY – SEPTEMBER 19: Westchester County jail guard is photographed wearing HIV/AIDS protective gear September 19, 1985 at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla, New York. Prison and jail correction officers are concerned about contracting AIDS. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)