Omari Douglas: what It's A Sin debunked about AIDS and what still needs to change

Jessica Davis
·7-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Harper's BAZAAR

Omari Douglas was never taught about HIV or AIDS at school. It's a shocking but all too common truth among many who didn't live through the Eighties, and it's exactly why shows such as It's A Sin - Channel 4's new hit series - are so important.

Douglas plays the vibrantly brave character Roscoe in the five-part drama, which depicts the lives of a group of gay men and their friends between 1981 to 1991. As the decade unfolds, they are forced to reconcile with the AIDS epidemic, a new deadly disease that has made its way over from the US to the UK.

“With my sex education at school, I don’t remember hearing the word 'AIDS,'” Douglas tells me over Zoom on a snowy Friday. “If HIV was mentioned, it was very vague. It’s the lasting effect of stigmas - if you have a generation of teachers or workers that still hold that stigma, then it’s not spoken about. It’s just ignored, passing down this idea that we have to sweep certain things under the carpet.”

Douglas adds that LGBTQ+ education should not be limited just to history lessons about the AIDS epidemic. He says that queerness as a subject should be explored and welcomed in schools.

“Not only are you learning and taking on information at that age, but you’re also learning about yourself,” he says. “School has a lot to answer for in terms of how we form and develop as people; you’re going through this really formative period of life. We need to be more inclusive of everyone in that.”

The show’s emotionally raw and accurate representation of life among the gay community in the Eighties is one of the key reasons for its success. Different stories are brought to life by each character, all of whom are played with humanity and authenticity.

Douglas, born in Wolverhampton, graduated from Arts Educational Schools London in 2015 and has many notable theatre performances to his name, including West End’s High Society and Wise Children at the Old Vic. He may have made his TV debut in It’s A Sin, but his performance as flamboyant, fearless Roscoe had an impact on viewers almost immediately.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

One of his first scenes had audiences cheering at their screens; before his deeply religious Nigerian parents attempt to send him back to their motherland to ‘cure him’ of his gayness, he defiantly bursts into the family dining room wearing a crop-top and mini-skirt and leaves the house. “At that moment, he takes charge of his life,” says Douglas. “He doesn’t know what will happen afterwards because he’s choosing to leave a roof over his head and his family, but he’s someone who is brave enough. Not everyone is able to do that.”

As Douglas researched the Eighties gay community, speaking to people who lived through it themselves, he realised that Roscoe's confidence and stylishness was a form of protest - a way of challenging a homophobic society. “There was something almost political in being that bold and audacious, that gay in the face of all of this prejudice,” he continues. “It’s kind of sticking the middle finger up at the system. I think that’s probably why people have connected with it because it’s someone making good in the face of something that’s really crap.”

Roscoe later finds his crowd and moves into the Pink Palace with a group of friends who quickly become a family. They party, they take care of one another and share in-jokes, using coded language to express how they feel, singing ‘La’ whenever they say hello and goodbye. The power of love and friendship is woven throughout the show, resulting in both heartwarming and deeply tragic moments.

“I resonated a lot with that dynamic,” says Douglas, thinking of himself at drama school. “That was the first time I had moved to London. After the show aired, I had so many messages from friends saying, ‘oh my god it’s like those parties we used to have!’ The madness and vibe of the house party in episode one reminded them of the house I used to live in with my friends.

“The friendship we see evokes a lot of nostalgia with people full of good feelings, so that’s why so many people have connected to it.”

Photo credit: Ben Blackall
Photo credit: Ben Blackall

That connection to the show and its characters mean that it's no surprise that It’s a Sin smashed Channel 4 viewing records and has had a rippling effect on society, with charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust noting that testing figures soared in light of the show - it’s taken on a much greater purpose than being a piece of television.

The series highlights how, at the time, people were openly vilified for being gay. It reveals the everyday realities of discrimination, including not being able to get a mortgage, highlighted in a scene in which one of the characters is forced to lie about his sexuality to a bank manager so that he can buy a flat.

“A lot of people didn’t realise that happened,” says Douglas of the scene. “The show has revealed so much in terms of stigma and prejudice and shown that we’re at the stage with HIV treatment now that you can live a normal life with it.”

The real-life stories were close to home for many of the show’s cast and team. Some had lived through the epidemic themselves, including series creator Russell T. Davies and Stephen Fry, who Douglas worked closely with during filming.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

“The day before we started shooting our first scenes together, we met over a cup of tea and [Stephen] shared so many things with me,” he explained. “I remember telling him that I’d read a book called PWA that charts the last days of a journalist who suffers from AIDS and Stephen said ‘yeah, that was my friend.’ It’s just harrowing.”

As we chat, Douglas repeatedly praises the show's creator Davies: “The fact that you had people like Stephen come on board is a testament to him in how he portrayed the story, as well as others who lived through it.”

One character who has received a lot of traction with audiences is Jill, played by Lydia West, who serves as a big sister figure and best friend to all her gay friends. When the disease first arrives in the UK, she gathers as much information as she can about the virus (no mean feat given how little facts were available), nurses them when they become sick and sits at their bedsides when things become darker. She even sits at the death bed of strangers, comforting them when they had no one else. The role was based on Davies’ friend, Jill Nolda, who in the series plays the mother of the character she inspired. “It’s been amazing to see the amount of exposure her story has had,” says Douglas. “It’s how people dealt with the crisis and she’s just one of so many extraordinary people who were caregivers and allies at such a time of need for people. So many people were isolated in many ways; it’s great that we’re championing people like Jill who were and still are heroes.”

Photo credit: Ben Blackall
Photo credit: Ben Blackall

It’s A Sin has been the ultimate career-launching show for Douglas, providing the perfect opportunity for him to explore such important issues and share them with a wide audience - something he wants to continue with going forward. The response may have been overwhelming, but he has a clear idea about what to do next.

“I’d love to carry on telling and sharing stores that people can identify with,” he tells me. “It allows for change and to look at society by uncovering those stories that have been kept to one side. We’ve definitely done that here, so I want to keep doing that and give those hidden stories the spotlight they deserve.” We can say with confidence that he’ll be doing just that.

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