On Nov. 7, 1991, basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson stunned the world by announcing that he was HIV positive.
Now, more than 20 years later, acclaimed filmmaker Nelson George gets to the core of Johnson’s incredible emotional journey in the new ESPN Films documentary, The Announcement, airing Sunday, March 11, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPNHD.
Front Row got a chance to ask George some questions about the documentary that centers on Johnson, now an ESPN NBA analyst.
FR: Magic’s announcement in 1991 was one of those moments that seems to live in everyone’s memory. Do you remember where you were when Magic made the announcement at the Forum?
NG: The day of Magic’s press conference, I was at the offices of the alternative weekly, The Village Voice, where I was a columnist. It was held in the afternoon New York time so I was one of many assigned to write a piece on the impact. I was a Knicks’ season ticket holder, so that night I went to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks play the Orlando Magic. Until I started working on this doc, I had no idea who won the game (turns out NY blew them out.) What I do remember is coach Pat Riley speaking to the fans before the game and leading both teams in prayer.
FR: So many people who were close to Magic are interviewed for The Announcement. What was it like interviewing those involved such as [Johnson’s wife] Cookie Johnson and Chris Rock?
NG: For most of the folks we interviewed, it was a very emotional journey, a trip down a very trying memory lane. Chris Rock is a good friend and one of the smartest people I know. He was also at the Garden at the Knicks game the night of the announcement so I wanted him in it. Cookie Johnson was probably the most interesting interview because she has done few on-camera interviews about that time and she was very honest and poised.
FR: The Announcement isn’t your first time dealing with HIV/AIDS as a subject matter for a film. You also wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed film Life Support. How has HIV affected your own personal life and why was that film so important to you?
NG: My sister Andrea Williams found out she was HIV positive in 1993, two years after Magic, which was a profound moment for our family. But, like Magic, Andrea had a strong will and was fortunate to be around when the AIDS cocktails were developed which gave a new lease on life to Magic, Andrea [who appears in The Announcement] and millions of others. In 2007, I directed Life Support, a film for HBO based on my sister’s life that starred Queen Latifah. So my personal and creative life are now profoundly tied to HIV. I’m proud to have worked on two high profile projects that have given a human face to this struggle.
FR: What do you hope that viewers take away from The Announcement?
NG: Hopefully, the film calls attention to HIV’s on-going danger and serves as an education tool for a new generation. Fifty to sixty thousand Americans a year become HIV positive. In the black community, depending on the neighborhood, the infection rate can be as high as 6 percent of the population.