‘Chocolate Babies’, Stephen Winter’s Forgotten AIDS Debut – film review.

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In honour of LGBTQ+ History month 2022, third-year BA Film Studies students are providing a series of weekly reviews that capture this year’s theme of Politics In Art: ‘The Arc Is Long’. Next up is Aoife Ranyell’s review of ‘Chocolate Babies’.

Sam (Jon Kit Lee) and Max (Claude E. Sloan) in Chocolate Babies. Dir. Steven Winters, Frameline, 1995. [Description: A view from the back of a sofa with two people sitting on it. The individuals are looking at each other intently with their heads resting on their hands.]

For the LGBT+ community, the 1980s and ’90s will forever be associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic – an immunodeficiency virus that alters the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. By 1993, over 2.5 million cases had been confirmed worldwide, and by 1995, given the lack of substantial response from the government, AIDS was the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25 to 44, disproportionately affecting the queer Black American population. In 1996, at the height of the epidemic, Chocolate Babies was released. 

Given the lack of narrative films focussed on HIV-positive, Black American minority LGBT+ communities in New York, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chocolate Babies is a documentary. However, inspired by the New Queer Cinema movement and classic Humphrey Bogart movies, Stephen Winter wrote and directed his debut feature film as a drama. Chocolate Babies follows a group of loud queer activists – Max, Sam, Jamela, Larva (my personal favourite of the group), and Lady Marmalade – as they inflict war against the city’s conservative politicians who are failing to act in response to the AIDS epidemic that is destroying their community and their loved ones. The story not only highlights the epidemic taking place, but also addiction, abortion, religion, alcoholism, and fears of coming out, producing a raw and honest portrayal of inner-city life for the LGBT+ communities at the time.

Despite premiering at the 47th Berlin International Film Festival in 1997, Chocolate Babies never received full distribution and has been mostly forgotten in the world of queer cinema – it had never crossed my radar before now. It’s a huge shame because the film’s unique and transgressive style and point of view make for an absorbing and powerful film, one that will definitely pull on your heart, and has certainly expanded my perspective on the events of the 90s.

Further Viewing & Reading

Queering the Canon: BIOPIC NYC. Chocolate Babies Q&A with Stephen Winter.

The Early Days of America’s AIDS Crisis, by Tim Fitzsimons

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