An Unsung Hero Of The AIDS Crisis Is Finally Getting The Spotlight

The story of Ruth Coker Burks, an Arkansas woman who became an accidental AIDS caregiver and inadvertent activist, had been lost to history. Now, though, she is the subject of Ruth, a short film directed and written by Rose McGowan.

“I think she’s been forgotten by time,” McGowan told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview. “Ruth Coker Burks is a national hero. I hope she gets seen and treated that way in the future. I think it’s time for strong women in history to rise up and be counted. And I’ll do anything I can to help that along.”

In 1984, according to a 2015 profile of Burks in the Arkansas Times, she was 25 and visiting a friend in the hospital when she heard nurses trying to avoid the room of a quarantined patient. Burks decided to go into the room herself, and found a young man wasting away from what turned out to be AIDS. The man told her he wanted to see his mother, but when Burks reported that to the nurses they said no one was going to come to visit him. Burks took it upon herself to call the patient’s mother, who confirmed she had indeed rejected him.

Burks stayed with the man until he died later that night. It was the beginning of a years-long run helping AIDS patients whose biological families had shunned them. She would take them to the doctor, and help with their medications. In the Arkansas Times story, Burks — a childhood friend of Bill Clinton’s from Hot Springs, Arkansas — said, “I was their hospice. Their gay friends were their hospice. Their companions were their hospice.”

McGowan’s Ruth, which runs just under eight minutes, shows that inceptive moment for Burks. When the vodka company Zirkova — which is sponsoring a series of short films through its We Are One+Together nonprofit — approached McGowan to direct the project she hadn’t heard of Burks. But as McGowan researched her she became “fascinated and captivated by the story.” Though Zirkova had sent McGowan a script, she rewrote it during an all-nighter.

After watching two nurses play Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who has to go check on the patient (Billy, played by Kyle Eastman), Ruth (played by Shay Astar) directly addresses the camera. “Sometimes family feuds make people do strange things, like buy up half a cemetery,” she says to the audience. “I used to wonder what on earth I was going to do with my 262 plots my mother left me. I didn’t have to wonder long.” The real Burks would later bury the cremated bodies of men she had cared for.

Ruth breaking the fourth wall had an unlikely inspiration. “I kind of, believe it or not, was thinking of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” McGowan said with a laugh, noting that the technique, other than in House of Cards, is usually used in comedy. “I thought the most effective way to communicate what I was trying to say was to have her say it directly at the audience.”

Ruth was shot in Los Angeles over a two-day period in June. McGowan said she cast Astar, a “cerebral actress,” because “I needed somebody really smart.” McGowan said: “I also wanted somebody kind of unusual looking who looked like they could be from a smaller town.”

Admirers of McGowan’s previous short film, Dawn, which was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, will recognize the actor-turned-director’s use of color. “I saw the color palette in my head and went from there,” McGowan said. Ruth’s dress is light pink, ruffled — and practically whimsical. “I thought, Just because she’s in a small town doesn’t mean she’s a church lady,” McGowan added. “So I found this pink outfit that was kind of great, and I wanted to juxtapose it with all the seriousness.” As shot by cinematographer Anka Malatynska, the hospital corridor and Billy’s room are in a dreamy haze; as Ruth stands at the foot of his bed, a golden light streams through the curtain of the window in the middle of the shot. When Ruth talks to the curt, judgmental nurse, and to Billy’s cruel mother, McGowan shows them in sharp relief. “I like to use all sorts of tools — sound design, lighting, set design are all huge for me,” McGowan said.

Since McGowan gave up acting in favor of a varied career — in addition to developing films and television she’s been working on an album and a skin-care line, and her memoir, Brave, will be published by HarperOne in January — the common thread among the projects is clear to her: “Everything is based in activism,” McGowan said. “That, to me, is the hubcap of the wheel of what I’m doing.”

Ruth — which premiered on Sunday in Montauk, New York, to coincide with the kickoff of the 2017 International AIDS Conference in Paris — is a way for her to express ideas about the lasting consequences of AIDS in America. “I think we’re at the place we’re at culturally because so many creatives were wiped out by AIDS,” McGowan said. “What we’re left with is something kind of lacking. I don’t think we reflect as a society on what we’ve lost — not just the individual toll, but the collective toll.”

Kate Aurthur is the chief Los Angeles correspondent for BuzzFeed News. Aurthur covers the television and film industries.

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57 Thoughts I Had Watching This Week's “Game Of Thrones,” Including “PIRATE FIGHT!”

1. Listen, I don’t want to jinx it, but second episodes tend to be big on this show.

2. I mean, Jon Snow came back from the ever-lovin’ DEAD in Episode 2 last season.

3. So let’s see some fireworks, huh?

4. OK so clearly Dany doesn’t trust Varys one bit. Good call, tbh.

5. Oh shiiiiiit Melisandre’s here!


7. I mean, we were all pretty much assuming that Dany was a candidate for the Prince Who Was Promised but it’s nice to hear.

8. “Ned Stark’s bastard?” Haven’t heard that one in a while.

9. “He sounds like quite a man.” Girl he is but he’s your nephew so don’t get any ideas.

10. OK also don’t tell him to bend the knee, everyone’s been telling him to bend the knee via raven, you’re late to the game.

11. I can’t believe we’re already at the point where we’re talking about dragons vs. wights, IT’S HAPPENING PEOPLE.

12. Honestly everything Cersei is saying about Dany is kinda true?

13. She did crucify people and feed them to dragons.

14. Oh mannn, it’s Sam’s asshole dad.

15. “Rickon, isn’t it?” “Dickon.” Lol nice dig at George R.R. Martin’s character-naming habits.

16. Daaaamn, Asshole Tarly is throwing some shade.

17. WAIT Jorah gets just one day?!

18. That’s harsh, Slughorn.

19. I do NOT like how series Cersei and Qyburn are getting about killing dragons.

20. OK yeah, that’s a big-ass crossbow.

21. Honestly, just tell Ellaria to go home.


23. “Be a dragon.” YAS BITCH.

24. Aww still here for Missandei and Grey Worm.

25. “You are my weakness.” Are we in a Nora Ephron movie? Because that is some ROMANTIC SHIT right there.

26. No no Missandei you don’t understand that was romantic as hell.

27. OK listen up you sons of bitches, if anything bad happens to Grey Worm we’re shutting this whole thing down. All of it.

28. FINALLY. I mean listen, I’m very sorry Grey Worm doesn’t have a penis but it’s nice that these two finally realized you don’t necessarily need one to get BIZ-ZAY.

29. Seriously if nothing good happens this week, at least those two banged.

30. Oh shit, Sam’s about to get all Grey’s Anatomy up in here.

31. He’s about to cut Jorah’s metaphorical LVAD wire.

32. Oh good lord he’s going to literally peel off Jorah’s skin.

33. Great, it’s oozing. In close-up.

34. Why is everything that happens in the Citadel so gross?

35. OK but that cut to the guy’s shepherd’s pie was BRILLIANT.

36. OH my god, it’s an Arya/Hot Pie reunion!!!!

37. “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.”


39. Come on, plenty of time to kill Cersei later.

40. YES.

41. Well Jon, if Lyanna Mormont tells you to stay, you pretty much have to stay.

42. Good lord Sansa, can we have one meeting where you don’t undermine your brother?

43. Yeah, Jon, you can go ahead and start throttling Littlefinger anytime you like.

44. YES. Dude’s gross. Kill him and his weird untraceable accent.

45. What’s Littlefinger’s end game here? Thus far he’s succeeded in making everyone everywhere hate him.

46. Oh dammit, I just realized Arya’s going to get there and Jon will be gone.

47. Startled horse, snarling sounds in the forest…


49. Nooooooooo 🙁 it’s not Nymeria time.

50. OK listen, that was sad, but we’re GOING to see Arya commanding an entire pack of wolves at some point. I need that to happen.

51. “A foreign invasion is under way.” Another season, another bunch of hilarious dialogue from the Sand Snakes.


53. Has Euron been stabbed like, 12 times? How is this dude still standing?

54. Aha, so Ellaria is the “gift” for Cersei. Makes sense.

55. Theon. Come on now. Pull it together.

56. NOOOO. Ramsay is still in there. Poor Theon.

57. Well there you go, everyone who complained about the Sand Snakes. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?!

Here's A Detailed Breakdown Of The Incredible “Black Panther” Scene Shown At Comic-Con

As chaos overtakes the once-peaceful casino, Everett covers himself with his suitcase to escape the bullets flying from Ulysses’ gun. Afterward, T’Challa, who’d made his way to the ground floor of the casino while staking out the place, leaps to the balcony area in a single bound to take on Ulysses, who has just run out of bullets.

Michelle Pfeiffer Has Joined The Cast Of “Ant-Man And The Wasp”

In one of Ant-Man‘s post-credits scene, Hope’s father, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), bestows her with a brand-new Wasp costume. “If we’re fortunate enough to do a sequel to Ant-Man, it’s safe to say that Wasp would be a very big part of that story,” Ant-Man director Peyton Reed told BuzzFeed News’s Jarett Wieselman at the time of the movie’s release.

Reed is returning to direct the sequel, which was written by Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari.

16 Exciting Things We Just Learned About “Riverdale” Season 2

The panel screened a sneak peak of the episode that showed Archie (K.J. Apa) in his blood-stained letterman jacket, talking to his friends about the shooting. They appear to be at a hospital, which at least should indicate that Frank didn’t die at the scene of the crime. There’s also speculation in the clip that the shooting may have been a hit.

Ben Affleck Shut Down The Report That He's Being Pushed Out As Batman

SAN DIEGO — Just one day after The Hollywood Reporter posted a story alleging Ben Affleck is being pushed out as Batman in the DC Extended Universe, the actor took the stage at San Diego Comic-Con and put the rumors to bed.

“Let me be very clear, I am the luckiest guy in the world. Batman is the coolest fucking part in any movies,” he said. “I’m so thrilled to do it. I know there’s been some misconceptions because maybe I wasn’t enthusiastic about it.” But, he added, “It’s fucking amazing.”

Affleck — who was joined on stage by Ezra Miller (The Flash), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), and Jason Momoa (Aquaman) — will next appear as Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie, which will be released on Nov. 17. He’s also set to star in the 2018 Batman standalone film, titled The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves — whose newest film War for the Planet of the Apes just debuted in theaters on July 14.

“I would be a fucking ape on the ground for Matt Reeves,” Affleck said at the panel. “Don’t believe the hype,” Miller added.

“I’m really blown away and excited, and it’s a great time in the DC Universe,” Affleck said. “I think you’ll see why I’m so excited for Batman.”

Warner Bros. film studio chief Toby Emmerich previously debunked the report that Affleck was being pushed out, telling The Hollywood Reporter: “Ben is our Batman. We love him as Batman. We want to keep him in the cowl as long as we can.”

Affleck planned to direct the 2018 Batman standalone movie, but stepped down in January. At the time, he said: “Performing this role demands focus, passion and the very best performance I can give. It has become clear that I cannot do both jobs to the level they require. … I remain extremely committed to this project, and look forward to bringing this to life for fans around the world.”

Reeves, who was brought on as a director in February, dropped the script Affleck wrote with DC’s chief creative officer Geoff Johns, he said on MTV’s Happy Sad Confused podcast earlier this month. “It’s a new story,” he said. “It’s just starting again. I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be really cool.”

Affleck made his debut as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the long-anticipated sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel. His performance was not well received, and because Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then Suicide Squad were all met with indifference at best and mockery at worst, the fate of the interconnected DC films Warner Bros. was betting on seemed to be up in the air.

That is, until Wonder Woman changed everything earlier this summer and surpassed all of its DC predecessors at the box office, exceeding expectations in every single way. But time will tell if it’s enough to save Affleck’s Batman movie.

Casey Rackham contributed reporting to this story.