Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who is portrayed as a villain in this year’s Oscar-nominated AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague, may have had a change of heart regarding HIV/AIDS before his death Friday morning, according to Survive a Plague’s director David France.
During his three terms as mayor, from 1978-1988, Koch was among many high-profile lawmakers, including President Reagan, who did little to nothing to stop the disease’s spread, France says. “He was one of the most vehement obstacles to any sort of rational response to the mushrooming [AIDS] epidemic.”
Yet when Survive a Plague premiered last year, Koch, then a critic for local media, gave the film a rave without ever acknowledging his own role in the AIDS crisis: “This superb documentary directed by David France should not be missed,” he wrote, calling for the city to screen the film in public schools and asking that the ACT UP activists portrayed in the doc — people he called “fascists” when he was mayor — be honored with presidential medals of freedom.
“The review was staggering for its full-on praise — and for its complete lack of mea culpa,” France said before Koch’s death. “It’s going to take more than a seemingly naïve review to rescue the soul of a man who played the role that he did in the AIDS epidemic…. But maybe this was meant to be the beginning of a process.”
Koch’s record on the AIDS epidemic as mayor of New York City is already being scrutinized in the early hours after his passing. His initial 5,500-word obituary in the New York Times was immediately criticized for its lone passing reference to AIDS; several hours later, three paragraphs were added to reflect what critics called Koch’s inadequate action in the city’s response to the epidemic.