“Let this fight be between me and God,” implores Dalee Henderson as his body, mind and spirit come to grips with the ravages of full-blown HIV/AIDS. The struggle will be immense for the celebrity coiffeur (clients from Denzel Washington to Diana Ross and 15 minutes of fame with the nearly-famous Oprah—decked out in a natty blue suit that prophetically morphs into a dream affair with the colour of cobalt) who can’t fathom how “God’s child” has been given a quick death sentence (diagnosis came in 1987) for partaking in unprotected sex.
Mialyn Hanna’s compellingly honest and courageous chronicle of Henderson’s death story will be of enormous benefit to anyone with a terminal illness, their primary caregivers and, in particular, the majority of friends and family who are unable to fully accept much less co-exist with the apparent loved one.
The film is awash with moments of love. Unforgettable is straight, white Christian Jackson, who has volunteered to accompany and live with Henderson as he travels to a London clinic for an experimental trial. The image of the two men lying in bed together, Jack gently holding Dee and providing human comfort that alludes many lovers, offers a special moment of hope for those who purport to love God, yet spurn so many minorities on their way to the altar of salvation. Henderson’s triple whammy: Gay, HIV+, disabled raises more issues than can ever be resolved in one personal portrait but can’t fail to provide moments of sober reflection for viewers who themselves are afflicted with the equally deadly virus of CWC (compassion when convenient).
None better than Philip Glass to craft the score of such a human, if difficult subject. From the opening measures of string quartet (with more than just a hint of Schubert’s incomparable “Death and the Maiden”) to the frantic, full-orchestral flight of love/life (shifting modes as often as his subject’s moods) through the drum/sax duet au salle de bain when the physically challenged Henderson shamelessly lets the camera record the indignities and humour (“Get the mouse out of the house” will never sound quite the same again) of his boyfriend’s hands-on assistance taking a pee at a party. Yet, like so many characters that populate Henderson’s dissolving world, they pop in with love and devotion only to slip off the screen without another reference.
Hanna and her remarkable camera crew often shift to points of view that none of us ever want to experience. The ceilings-and-hall sequence—culminating in long dissolves walking through the institution that will pronounce medicine’s diagnosis—brings that scary moment into “that could be me” reality; Henderson’s valiant struggle with a walker—shot at floor level—also captures the ugly truth unforgettably.
Throughout it all, Henderson’s visage lights up on many occasions with the notion, feeling and hope for love. He spreads his arms wide in reply to “How much love is there in the Universe?” yet has moments where he wishes that “I was an alien, not necessarily white but something else.” Being queer, black and sick pushes family and friends in and out of his life like an unstoppable revolving door. His courage in putting himself under the microscope more than trumps the emptiness of “living alone, without an intimate.” “For better or worse”—so easy to say, near-impossible to live.
And the look and feel of cobalt is forever changed. JWR