How can a fictional story actually transform culture? Philadelphia did it by showing the horrific truths behind a reality that society had ignored. Part four of this series celebrating 1993’s transformative films examines how Philadelphia accomplished a seemingly impossible feat: education and compassion for those suffering from the AIDS epidemic. We’ll explore why the film was written, how the title surprisingly impacted its success, and what Philadelphia did to positively disrupt culture.
Taking AIDS Earnestly & Miller Manipulation
Philadelphia opens with talented lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) getting a promotion. While congratulating him, one of the senior partners comments about a lesion on Beckett’s head. The young attorney brushes it off, but it’s the beginning of the end.
Shortly afterward, Beckett submits important and timely documents for his assistants to file on his behalf. But when the files mysteriously disappear, he is fired for incompetence. Since the lesion was a symptom of being HIV positive, Beckett suspects he was ultimately fired for being gay. When no one will represent him in court, he visits small-time lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who becomes visibly uncomfortable when Beckett reveals his diagnosis (because of all that it implies).
The casting in this picture was as equally important as the story. As a schmoozy ambulance-chaser, the Joe Miller character is not immediately likable. But his devotion to family, intelligence, and charm—as only the indomitable Denzel Washington can pull off—begins winning us over. This relatability was intentional as the Miller character was designed to represent the American “everyman.”
The genius was in making sure Miller was portrayed by a Black man. Regardless of how they felt about homosexuality and AIDS, the audience that didn’t want to be racist would desire to relate with Washington. And if the audience’s homophobia was stronger than their racism, they would relate to Washington’s homophobia.
Considering America’s general disdain at the time for gay people and AIDS, the Andrew Beckett character couldn’t just grow on us: the actor had to be loveable before we even saw the movie. Beloved and respected, Tom Hanks perfectly filled the need for an endearing yet believably competent leading man. And all of that on top of the fact that he was portraying what many feel is the loathsome profession of lawyering!
On the one hand, I fundamentally don’t like that Hanks was cast in order to make the audience love the character with AIDS. It’s analogous to the way that playing worship music before a sermon can make my heart more receptive—it’s manipulative, but it also works. The reasoning for casting Hanks has been public knowledge, which makes me feel a little better because they were forthright about using every resource available.
On the other hand, how else is a storyteller who is trying to sway a society’s deep-seated homophobia supposed to make a man with AIDS an object of compassion? Which brings us back to our everyman Joe Miller’s reaction to Beckett’s request for representation.
Director Jonathan Demme portrays the discomfort by shooting from Miller’s perspective and following Beckett’s movements. Demme’s signature camera move is unsettling as the extreme close-up races from Beckett situating items to touching the desk. Even if the audience isn’t bothered by Beckett’s homosexuality or illness, they’re nauseated by unfamiliar camera techniques—which is the point. Demme forces us to relate to Miller one way or another. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner continues pushing the viewer. Having declined Beckett’s request, Miller has his doctor test him for AIDS because he shook Beckett’s hand. Thirty years later, Miller’s worries about getting AIDS from a handshake seem laughable, but at the time so little was known about the disease that this type of reaction was common.
City of Brotherly Discrimination
Honesty is one of the film’s strengths, but to grasp why truth-telling resonated with society, we must understand the title. I always thought the film being called Philadelphia was at best weird and at worst a mistake, especially considering its working titles of At Risk, People Like Us, and Probable Cause seem much more descriptive. After all, the story highlights the defense of a gay man’s wrongful termination, not the Liberty Bell or cheesesteak. Homophobic discrimination was happening in all kinds of cities great and small. Why call this story this city’s name?
Nyswaner attempted to answer this question: “The City of Brotherly Love, the Declaration of Independence…I mean, perfect, right?” Personally, I don’t feel that’s a very clear explanation, but his mentioning two paradigmatic symbols of the United States’ foundational principles got me thinking. Maybe my sarcastic thought of the Liberty Bell was right on the money. Maybe the filmmakers were trying to embody the ideas of liberty and love. Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’d like to call my first witness…
Jesus used the word phileo (brotherly love) multiple times; sometimes it was in the context of condemning oppressive actions (like how hypocrites love to limit others’ liberties while appearing super religious). But phileo was also used about Jesus to describe His sorrow over the death of His close friend Lazarus (John 11:3, 36). So Jesus was mindful of overthrowing oppressors, but also of situating that liberty in love.
In retrospect, it was wise to set a film on sexual oppression in an American city well-known for liberty. It certainly didn’t hurt that the location gave opportunity for many candid shots of Philly, illustrating its grittiness and beauty. And of course, the story needed to be set in a metropolis—a bastion of progressive thought—because a homophobic small town would just be white noise. But, probably more importantly, this city of discrimination should ironically be known as a place for brotherly love.
Caring About People
It’s not until Miller sees how Beckett is ostracized in a library that he decides to represent the man with failing health. And even then, Miller is far from accepting. Because of his association with Beckett, Miller is hit on by a man and mocked by his colleagues. Living with these assumptions and discrimination and watching the injustice wears on Miller. The turning point comes after a party when Miller meets with Beckett to review his testimony. In a scene that critics gush over (but I don’t see as terribly moving1), Beckett dances to opera and humanizes himself to Miller.
Remembering that Miller was designed to be the everyman, this is the exact transitionary journey the filmmakers hoped the audience would also travel. Director Demme has been clear about his purposes on this since before the film was even made. “We didn’t want to make a film that would appeal to an audience of people like us, who already had a predisposition for caring about people with AIDS. We wanted to reach the people who couldn’t care less about people with AIDS. That was our target audience.”
Demme and Nyswaner weren’t just being Good Samaritans, they each had close friends or family diagnosed as HIV-positive with no hope of a cure. Even Demme’s producing partner Ed Saxon had a friend dying from the disease. And the filmmakers sadly had several true stories on which they based their narrative of discrimination.
As I mentioned here, AIDS was first reported in 1981. But it wasn’t until 1985 when Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis became public, and his friend Elizabeth Taylor organized and hosted the “Commitment to Life” fundraiser, that society viewed the epidemic in a slightly more sympathetic light. Research, education, and activism was carried out over the following eight years leading up to 1993, but nothing had the cultural impact quite like Philadelphia. (I highly recommend the documentary How to Survive a Plague for a more complete timeline on the AIDS crisis.)
When the final court case plays out over the film’s third act, Beckett is repeatedly humiliated, as Miller empathetically looks on. Ironically, the most humiliating point is a choice by Beckett and Miller. The prosecutor (Mary Steenburgen) attempts to minimize the size of the lesion Beckett asserts was ground zero for his firm’s prejudice. The scene is memorable because Beckett chooses to disrobe, revealing a torso littered with large, bright lesions. But the scene is impactful because the audience is subconsciously reminded of their privilege of reading sterile statistics on the epidemic, while below the thin fabric of reality, millions are suffering and dying.
In the end, Beckett wins the case but loses his life—a grim reminder that death was the inevitable outcome for anyone with AIDS in 1993. And that truth telling drove Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine (yes, that’s a thing), Rita Charon, MD, PhD, to say the film “changed the national conversation” about AIDS. The filmmakers were trend-setters: not only did they make the public crisis personal but they influenced actual gay rights activists thirty years later.
In his must-read book Christ and the Culture Wars: Speaking for Jesus in a World of Identity Politics, Ben Chang reviews four major identity groups and explores how Christians can peaceably interact with them. He explains that in the past gay rights activism focused on how governments and laws discriminate against gay rights. But their focus has increasingly shifted to “finding and fighting personal homophobia in both the private and public spheres, and deconstructing the societal frameworks that propagate the notion that heterosexual relationships are the standard whilst homosexual relationships are abnormal” (p. 61). Activists have altered their approach, but Christians have reacted, especially regarding how gay people contracted AIDS, in a variety of ways.
The Age of AIDS: Choosing to Care
Reactions to the AIDS epidemic shouldn’t have been primarily around a homosexual lifestyle or religious beliefs or political agendas, but about the actual humans dying. By 1993, AIDS had claimed the lives of 3,000 Philadelphians, 200,000 Americans and 4,700,000 people worldwide.2
Just as Demme, Nyswaner, Saxon, and Taylor were motivated to raise awareness and support for their terminally ill friends, Jesus’s phileo love is deeply personal. The difference is that Jesus has the cure for both spiritual and bodily death. Granted, sometimes Jesus did weird stuff that may sound unloving, but if we pay attention, He was the definition of compassion.
A behind-the-scenes view of John 11:1-45 reveals that Jesus was told that his friend was sick with plenty of time for Him to get to Lazarus. Jesus had a proven track record of healing people, so why did He purposefully wait two days before meandering to His friend’s bedside? Lazarus’s sisters ask this same thing with deep frustration as they tell Jesus their brother died.
It’s here that Jesus wept and mourned because of how much He “phileo’d” Lazarus. But Jesus had bigger plans—He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead! In what could be a scene from The Mummy, Lazarus walks out of the grave fully wrapped in bandages. Many witnesses saw this unprecedented phenomenon and the news spread like wildfire. So if Jesus planned on resurrecting His friend, why did He weep?
Jesus mourned because He was somehow both fully God and fully human. His humanity was broken with raw emotion at Lazarus’s suffering and his family’s grief. But Jesus’s divinity knew that He alone had the power to raise His friend from death. He knew people would tell others of the miracle so that they would believe in Him. And He knew this would be proof that He could raise Himself from the dead later, substantiating His claim to offer eternal life.
Jesus covers the public with the personal. Because of His unconditional love, Jesus reasonably asks that we believe that He is God and obey all He says in the Bible. After we’ve done that—call it becoming a Christian or disciple or believer—He tells us to love. He says the two most important things are to love God and love others.3 That’s not just tolerance or hippy mantras but a spiritual-natural love that can only come from God and therefore can extend to others.
Philadelphia impacted society primarily because the filmmakers covered the public with the personal. I can think of few things more important than battling injustice and having a real-world impact of galvanizing public opinion (and the medical industry) to save lives. Compassion can change the world… especially if it starts in Philadelphia.
- The scene is fine, but just because Demme chose to make it incredibly difficult on himself, doesn’t mean it’s exceptional. In the end, it didn’t elicit the intended response in me that Hanks was incredible, and Miller could do nothing but be won over. ↩︎
- How to Survive a Plague, David France (2012). ↩︎
- The “love” used in Matthew 22:36-40 is agape (as opposed to phileo) and has social and moral implications. Check out this article for insight on God’s character of loving the unlovable. ↩︎