In 1993, approximately 20,000 Americans died from an AIDS related illness, 3,000 of those Philadelphians, according to one news report. At the time, HIV and AIDS were shrouded by stigma and prejudice against those who had it, especially those who were gay. For director Jonathan Demme, Philadelphia was his chance to get the general public to look past that stigma in the first big-budget and big-star Hollywood film about AIDS and homosexuals suffering from it. The film, starring Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a homosexual man suffering from AIDS, and Denzel Washington as Joe Miller, a homophobic lawyer who takes on Beckett’s case, is inspired in part by the story of Geoffrey Bowers’ AIDS discrimination lawsuit.
In the film, Beckett is an aspiring and hard-working young lawyer who is looked favorable upon at a competitive law firm. However, Beckett keeps his sexual orientation and HIV-positive status from his employers, something that is completely legal. One of his employers notices a purple lesion on Beckett’s forehead, recognizing it as a sign of HIV/AIDS. Beckett is subsequently fired, though he alleges it was because of AIDS discrimination rather than a missing file on an important case that was the official cause of his termination. As his condition worsens, Beckett eventually finds help in none other than Miller, a homophobic lawyer who is initially put-off by Beckett but eventually takes on his case, marking one of the first AIDS-discrimination lawsuits at that time. Miller ultimately warms to Beckett as a person, though he is still opposed to homosexuality in general. In the end, Beckett wins his case, but loses his life.
Philadelphia was purposely made to change the general public’s ideas about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, something that it ultimately did. Centers that helped treat people with AIDS got more recognition, as did those suffering from AIDS. It also acknowledged the importance of getting tested for HIV, the symptoms, and the ways in which it could be spread. The film helped to demystify the mystery surrounding HIV/AIDS and tackled the problems and prejudices our society has with homosexuality. After Philadelphia hit the mainstream moviegoers, ideas about homosexuality changed, and although there wasn’t an immediate turnaround, people became much more open to listening.
This film laid the groundwork for future films to take off and continue to progression towards a society open to HIV/AIDS awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Since Philadelphia, films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Rent (based off the musical written in 1994). Philadelphia was envisioned by a man who was watching his HIV/AIDS infected friends dying around him, and knew that something had to be done to raise awareness. This film not only brings justice to those who are discriminated against, it also shows the terrible and deadly progression of AIDS in a man we wholeheartedly sympathize with. It puts a face to the disease, and that is something that cannot be ignored.