A film, television, and Broadway director who boasts two Emmys (and four more nominations) atop his lengthy list of industry awards has a lot of accomplishments. But Paris Barclay, whose latest work is with the team that brings us the acclaimed NBC drama series The West Wing, says his greatest achievement has been a project for which he has received much less attention: fighting HIV/AIDS in his Los Angeles community.
Barclay has spent the last eight years working with Project Angel Food, a ten-year-old nonprofit organization that prepares and delivers meals to people disabled by HIV and AIDS in the greater Los Angeles area. As a longstanding member both of its Board of Directors and Board of Trustees, as well as the group’s development committee, Barclay has raised thousands of dollars for Project Angel Food. All of this led President Bill Clinton to invite Barclay to the White House in 1995 for a meeting about HIV/AIDS in America. And in 1998, Project Angel Food bestowed its highest honor upon him, the Founders Award. “I consider my work for this organization my highest accomplishment,” Barclay says. “What’s the point of any success if you don’t give something back?”
But Barclay’s contribution reaches onto a national stage as well. As an openly gay Black man, he has used his art to educate film and television viewers about HIV, and about the ways in which race and sexuality intersect with it. He won a Director’s Guild of America Award in 1999 for his work on the heralded episode of NYPD Blue in which actor Jimmy Smits departed the show. But two of his three additional nominations for that award were for shows dealing with HIV and sexual orientation. One nomination was for the 1996 episode of ER in which a primary character—an African American woman who works in the emergency room as a physician’s assistant—discloses that she is HIV positive. Another nomination came for a 2000 episode of The West Wing that explores the topic of gay marriage. The episode reflected Barclay’s ongoing passion about breaking down stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities—ranging from his regular columns in The Advocate magazine to his work with national gay political organizations to his vocal efforts to create space for openly gay men and women in Hollywood.
“I’ve always tried—as much as I can—to cross my politics and my social beliefs into my work,” he explains. He is currently developing a new series about the bias crime unit of the New York Police Department. Entitled One Police Plaza, Barclay hopes it will begin airing in Fall 2002, and says viewers can expect HIV/AIDS-related issues to be in the forefront.
But with the epidemic broadening at alarming rates within communities of color, Barclay doesn’t feel that the African American community has responded with the same sense of alarm as the rest of the country. He believes much of the reluctance to get involved has been stemmed from homophobia and negative perceptions of intravenous drug users. Those two factors combined, he says, make HIV/AIDS an issue that many African Americans don’t want to deal with. “My feelings are that humans are dying and it really doesn’t matter much to me how,” Barclay says. “They’re still dying and they still need our help.” To counter the reluctance born from this stigma, he argues, we must begin talking to young people about the epidemic and its dynamics early on. “Address it as frankly and as directly as possible,” he urges.
As he continues to see friends newly gripped by the disease, Barclay pledges that his work in HIV/AIDS prevention is far from over. “I fight the battles for all of them,” he says. “I feel that it is the responsibility of any African American, primarily any African American that has prominence in the industry of their choice. I feel they have a responsibility to use that prominence to influence people to a positive end. So I feel I’m doing my job.”