REVIEW: 5B opens a window to the nascent era of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and spotlights the unseen human element that rose up in its wake.


While directors Dan Knauss and Paul Haggis’ film 5B does an amazing job of putting the viewer in the midst of the xenophobia and fear surrounding the rise of the AIDS epidemic, the true wonder spotlighted is the human spirit on display in the nurses of San Francisco General Hospital’s frontline helping those afflicted with dignity and respect.

As 5B begins, we see San Francisco in 1980s, with gay people starting to actualize themselves and express their sexuality and try to gain acceptance. We see footage of politicians like Harvey Milk being accepted and the signs of the level of acceptance we have today have seeds back in the early 1980s. But then we cut to 1981 and the first signs of this mysterious “gay cancer” we later know would become known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS. When AIDS first appeared, people had no idea what it was, how to treat it. They were veritable lepers, with no idea how it was acquired, was it like smallpox or yellow fever. As it was, they were kept apart from everyone and the disease seemed 100% fatal, afflicting only gay men, and later, drug addicts, what were viewed as the dregs of society. As such, they became pariahs, treated by many as subhuman. It was the San Francisco General Hospital that decided to combat this head-on by creating the nation’s first dedicated ward to treat AIDS patients, Ward 5B. Knauss and Academy Award winner Haggis spotlight the brave nurses who staffed and built the ward, combating the prejudice of those afflicted with the disease and seeing them as human, not monsters, helping patients have the dignity of human contact and comfort in the early days of what was essentially hospice conditions.

5B’s real stars as the brave nurses and people who helped humanize the disease, from reporters like Hank Plante, spotlighting the discrimination that insurance companies used to deny coverage to ailing AIDS patients, to nurses like Mary Magee who moved to SF specifically to help in this unit and found themselves battling not just this disease, but the intolerance against those suffering from it. It’s not without coincidence that the xenophobia against the early AIDS patients, and the ideas that they needed to be quarantined against, restrict their movement and immigration seem similar to the invective thrown at immigrants and foreigners in our current landscape. The idea that people in lower circumstances take away from the well-to-do and are signs of the wrath of God against America ran just as true in the era of Reagan as they do in today’s America and Knauss and Haggis illustrate that with file footage that is as eye-opening as it is frightening and disheartening.

5B is a really captivating documentary that shows compassion and the true face of the human element in the wake of a developing national tragedy. It should be required viewing to understand the changing face of America that politics and humanity are often at odds and that should never be the case.