Film Review: Documentary “5B”

Documentary “5B” is a heart-wrenching and necessary memoir for Pride Month

Often, as our society moves farther away from excruciating and painful parts of our collective past, it is easy to forget the struggle of the individuals swept up in that history.  In 2019, some believe that championing equality is a waste of time because it has already been achieved, so films like “5B” are as essential as ever.

In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS swept across San Francisco and the rest of the country, claiming the lives of thousands of people.  For years, the disease was poorly understood and even medical professionals did not fully understand how it was spread.  Patients who contracted the illness were often left alone for hours without care because nurses and doctors were afraid to treat them.  At San Francisco General Hospital, a group of pioneering nurses created a space where AIDS patients could be treated with dignity and respect, even as they were dying.

It is easy to forget how powerful touch can be until you watch previously secluded AIDS patients feel the soft caress of a compassionate nurse’s hand.  By highlighting the nursing staff that built the first ever dedicated AIDS ward and helped patients face their inevitable demise with dignity, “5B” gets to the heart of what makes us each human.  Though it highlights how far we have come in our quest for equality, it similarly underlines how far we may have yet to go.  For anyone questioning the existence of Pride Month in the current age, “5B” offers an in-depth look into why it exists and why it is so important.  The stigma that the gay community faced across the country, in the medical community, and from our own government are stark reminders that our collective acceptance is all too recent.

This documentary is designed to make you cry.  It effectively spotlights the powerful prejudice and fear the gay community faced during the AIDS crisis and beyond.  Terminal patients were often alone because their families had disowned them and their partners were not recognized as spouses.  Children with HIV were excluded from school and their homes were burned down.  While it may be upsetting to think about, these are issues that still have resonance for many today.

Hank Plante, himself one of the only openly gay TV reporters at the time, provides current perspective as well as reels of footage from the time when 5B was active.  The amount of applicable period footage is unprecedented, and it truly brings the audience into the world of the nurses and patients of 5B.  Of course, these reels exist because Hank covered the AIDS crisis on TV throughout its peak while he simultaneously mourned the loss of friends in his community.

“5B,” like all good stories, has heroes and villains.  You will groan and cheer and cry as its subjects tell their stories.  But perhaps this film’s most enduring lesson is that if you look at your fellow men and women as equals, no matter their status or condition, a small slice of hope can be found in even the bleakest moments.

“5B,” directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss, opens in select theatres on Friday, June 14th.  A portion of ticket sales will benefit (RED) and its commitment to life-saving HIV/AIDS programs.  While it is not yet screening in Philadelphia, you can find showtimes at AMC Loews Cherry Hill and other locations throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania at

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