Walking down a Chicago street in 2021, actor Keith Butler said a man recognized him from a character that he played in a film two decades ago: Kevin, from the local production Kevin's Room.
"The fact that he still recognized Kevin, and it had such an impact on his life that he can still see the character and the personthat's just amazing," Butler told Windy City Times. "To me, that says what we did was valuable and important."
The themes of Kevin's Room continue to be relevant 20 years after its debut, according to the film's cast and crew. The narrative centers around a Black gay men's support group led by Kevin, a social worker who brings his own struggles to the room. Together, the group members discuss issues around HIV, sexuality, spirituality and more.
The film broke ground by spotlighting these stories and conversations, said Lora Branch, who primarily wrote Kevin's Room.
"Nothing like that was happening at the time. We were taking a big risk having an intimate scenes, especially with Black gay men on television," Branch said. "It was life-affirming for a lot of people."
Branch said she structured the film to create nuanced, multidimensional characters. Each of the men in the support group hold complexity, and they turn to one another to talk about their experiences. Knowing that so many portrayals of Black gay men were flat, she wanted to give them life.
So rather than build characters off stereotypes, Branch looked to real people to create representation. Kevin, for example, was partially based on a friend of Branch's.
"He was just just a light in my world. To have something that we have his name in and his presence over, his family was really appreciative of it," she said. "Our friend group, many of whom are no longer here, saw themselves represented."
That representation resonated beyond their friend group to Chicago viewers and beyond. Shown internationally at film festivals and across the nation, Kevin's Room offered a more nuanced look into HIV, said Sanford Gaylord, who played Kevin's partner Jhalil in the film.
For Gaylord, it was also particularly significant to demonstrate the value of a chosen family within the film.
"We need representation to know that we really are okay, that we are worthy of being loved, that we can have a family of choice," Gaylord said. "I was kicked out when I was 16, the same year that HIV hit papers. It's important to show other individuals that may have experienced that."
Just as the support group became a chosen family for the characters on screen, Gaylord said a chosen family existed off-screen, too. The cast and crew are bound forever, said producer Sharon Zurek, and the legacy of the film lives on, too.
Since the early 2000s, Kevin's Room has played at house parties, in community clinics and most recently, on the internet. Distributed free on YouTube and Vimeo, the film still garners hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Though it makes her proud to see people connect with Kevin's Room, Zurek hopes the film's struggles will eventually seem like a relic of the past.
"I'm glad people find it's a good resource for information," Zurek said. "(But) it'd be nice if it just becomes a historical document and we don't have to worry about losing people to HIV."
For now, Kevin's Room is still relevant to today, especially as COVID-19 worsens the HIV epidemic, Branch said. Systemic racism and homophobia continue to create barriers to accessing prevention and treatment for HIV, leading the virus to disproportionately impact Black gay men. While there's been a great deal of progress since Kevin's Room first debuted, the gap hasn't closed, she explained.
Butler also said stigma around HIV remains, adding that Kevin's Room is all about creating space for conversation.
"It was about having conversations not only with partners, but with families, and within the church," Butler said. "There's a message and there's an action and we can join them together."
Kevin's Room aimed to do more than entertain, Branch said. Sponsored by the Chicago Department of Public Health, Kevin's Room incorporated public-health education around HIV. With this approach, the film did not treat HIV as strictly a death sentencean aspect Gaylord said is crucial.
After his HIV diagnosis, Gaylord was told to get his affairs in order because he wouldn't make it to 30. In his 30s, a doctor questioned why he wanted to be an actorand in his 30s, he starred in Kevin's Room.
Now, 20 years later, he can still remember the moment he saw himself on the big screen. Like many of the people involved in Kevin's Room, he refers to it as one of his greatest joys.
"This is my 32nd year [with] HIV," Gaylord said. "I still dance upon the earth instead of [lying] in a coffin, under the ground or in some can," he said. "No human being can determine your destiny or who you are … To have had a film that has touched so manyit really was one of the highlights of my life."