The strength of Philadelphia is its confrontation of how discrimination (homophobia, sexism, racism) manifests: in gestures, actions and words, even when these prejudices are unconscious. Homophobia becomes seen as a set of enacted practices: a fear of AIDS, or a fear of male desire for one’s own (male) body, fear in the sauna and locker room, fear of sex itself. It’s easy to dismiss homophobia as not a “phobia” as such; it’s not as easy to visualise as, say arachnophobia, or claustrophobia, or agoraphobia. These prejudices are part and parcel with the attitudes of Wheeler’s legal firm, that fires Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) on paper because of his poor performance in a recent suit over mislaid paperwork, but in reality because of his sexuality and contraction of AIDS. “Ethnic” earrings are not “American”, causing African American defence lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to chuckle. The firm, deflecting each question with their own well-spoken legalese, asks how they can be discriminatory when their harassing staff place a single African American and a woman in positions of power within their male-dominated staff, but the constructed and rehearsed nature of their character assassination of Miller as incompetent and workmanlike becomes painfully obvious. There’s an irony to Philadelphia: Beckett, as a lawyer himself, must act not as an attorney but, in bringing a case against his former employers, as a defendant represented by Joe Miller. Beckett’s immune system might be powerless, but as a figure and as a defendant he remains powerful.
The courtroom drama is no stranger to cinema, from Scandal (1950) to 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or the animal rights documentary Unlocking the Cage (2016). Each film follows the same basic structure of witnessing justice, truth and individual freedom and liberty prevail, whether the focus is on juror, judge, lawyer or witness. For Philadelphia, the defence is built around both sexuality and disability, but it could easily be about the culture of workplace sexual harassment (Disclosure (1994)), or the freedom of the press, or racial identity. (Most esoterically, A Matter of Life and Death (1945) stages the courtroom drama in Heaven itself.) Though the courtroom drama might seem like it lacks dramatic potential, confined to one space for an extended period of time, Demme maintains interest throughout with a commitment to the film’s visual style and shot choices, the film’s cinematography and performances, and its wonderful score by Howard Shore (and headed by songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young that only emerged late in the game.) Even Demme’s use of time is economical and efficient, delivering the most important scenes in the narrative and skipping past days, weeks and months at a time; we don’t need to see Beckett’s long wait until the trial occurs.
In the past 25 years, Philadelphia hasn’t become irrelevant. The only things that might have been dated is the presentation of Miller as a fag-hating, “how do they do it, it’s gross!” homophobe, lashing out in a store during the trial at a man who tries to hit on him. Miller’s response is reprehensible, but there’s also a degree of box checking identity: because Miller is representing a homosexual, already a well-known figure through his television advertisements, Miller must obviously be homosexual; he cannot have a wife, and cannot just be an African American lawyer (or, indeed just a lawyer, with the character originally written as Italian and with no efforts made to change his character to fit Washington per the documentary People Like Us: Making Philadelphia (2003).) Miller remains redeemable, undergoing a journey of understanding the humanity of Hanks’ Andrew Beckett; Miller can hold these contradictory beliefs and still defend him in court. With his endearing and defining quirks (“talk to me like I’m a four year old”) and his outbursts when the time is necessary, Miller, even as a homophobe, remains likeable. At points, Miller feels like more of a (heterosexual) audience identification figure than Beckett, with the viewer assumed to share some of these prejudices, but the film is open to counter readings. In a civic sense, Philadelphia is incredibly empowering: a fight against workplace discrimination and the corporate twisting of the truth that, astoundingly, wins, with Beckett awarded millions in damages. The importance isn’t that Beckett barely lives past the winning of his suit; the part that matters is he won the suit (and by extension setting a legal precedent.)
Demme creates a strong sense of both intersectionality and solidarity, appealing to an everyman-like sense of universality. Even Miller getting his blood tested is an act of solidarity. Indeed, Miller’s position as a lawyer is inherited from the African American fight for civil rights only decades earlier. Demme’s films are no stranger to these subjects: although The Silence of the Lambs (1991) courted, like Philadelphia, backlash and protest against its femininity, queerness and transness, films like Married to the Mob (1988) address other unfair prejudices, allowing us to explore Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer)’s agency after her mob boss husband is assassinated as they share a bathtub together, with Angela forced both to defend herself against sexism and objectification, and support herself in her apartment.The Jamaican hairdresser that eventually employs Angela allows insight into how insidious racism is, with the hairdresser profiled by police and threatened with deportation.
By working with AIDS sufferers as extras and in speaking parts, and by featuring figures such as Quentin Crisp, Philadelphia never feels diluted. Demme drew upon friends he had lost to AIDS, and maintained the HIV-positive casting of Bob Seidman (Ron Vawter). Philadelphia is a defence not only of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, but of the friends and family of the film’s cast and crew that were afflicted or had perished. Yes, Beckett’s boyfriend Miguel Álvarez (Antonio Banderas, having worked beforehand largely in Spanish language roles under Pedro Almodóvar) is marginalised, but his love for Beckett never doesn’t feel real. Their final embrace as Beckett’s friends and family say goodbye in the hospital is heartbreaking. Philadelphia might not be as incendiary as underground and independent cinema, or the work of queer writers and journalists immediately responding to the crisis. It never reaches the same points of genuine pain and mortality or exploration of religious theology as Angels in America (1991-92), however Philadelphia still demystifies the rampant misconceptions and makes an appeal towards humanity. It isn’t the ridiculous narrative and fear of films like The Cure (1995).
In the documentary One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave (1994), produced by Demme and included on the Blu-ray (notably, its titles share the same font used in the opening of Philadelphia, and shares some of the same cast), we witness the piercing and depressing reality of the AIDS crisis, filmed on videotape in the Dolly Madison room of the hospital. The image is rough, but we hear the images and voices and humour that sustains afflicted men in their last days: their philosophies, ideas about sexuality, beliefs about Heaven. The closing credits are tragic, with half of the documentary’s subjects too short lives memorialised. Though the AIDS crisis continued to be addressed in film, television, theatre and literature (David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013) notably forms a Greek chorus dialogue between the past of the epidemic and the more liberal present), Philadelphia stands out because it was produced during the crisis, able to both reflect the times and influence them. Survivors today from the heart of the crisis are incredulous, surviving when there was no expectation they would, having lost friends and partners, as a 2016 profile of San Fransisco residents illuminates.
In Philadelphia, Miller makes the case to the jury that sexuality and homosexuality doesn’t matter. As he leaves the courtroom, a television anchor asks Beckett about his sexuality, to which he remains proud. But it also matters at the same time. There’s great sadness in the image of protestors lined up outside the courtroom, proclaiming “ADAM AND STEVE” and “GAY: GOT AIDS YET?”, protesting the very existence and denouncing a dying man’s life as sinful. There’s a disgusting assumption of hierarchy: the contraction of AIDS through blood transfusions is acceptable (the irony is, many parts of the world still won’t allow “men who have sex with men” to give blood because of the crisis anyway), but it’s Beckett’s fault. It’s Beckett’s fault for being gay; his fault for going to porn theaters, his fault for choosing to have sex.
It’s not his fault.
Tom Hanks, fresh off his earlier roles in films like Big (1988), The ‘Burbs (1989) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and before the breakthrough of Forrest Gump (1994), might seem like another case of casting a straight Hollywood actor over a gay actor. But what can be more gay than the daring recontextualisation of the military uniforms Beckett and Álvarez wear as they dance and embrace at a costume party? The lesions on Beckett’s face act as a visual signifier of his rejection from society as a social pariah and the plague. Even in the library, as he looks for a legal case to build against his employers, the librarian, standing over him, never speaking, never moving until he gets the hint, cannot shake his discomfort and the discomfort within the room, quietly suggesting Beckett moves to the reading room. He stands his ground.
Like the myth itself – that HIV spreads through the air we breath and through any kind of context – the film’s environment hangs these prejudices within the air these characters breathe. Hanks does a good job at embodying this character physically and through make-up as his condition worsens, though it can never be as terrifying as within a real sufferer. Ultimately, we know Hanks as an actor will survive. But the message of AIDS is it can happen to anybody: whether Rock Hudson or your next door neighbour.
Demme, as ever, is interested in character, but still has his own flourishes. We watch Miller’s life reduced to objects and video cassettes of home movies, staring out in montage to the words of Neil Young: a life of great immensity, replayed in front of us, truly understating the great tragedy of dying young from AIDS. (Ironically, in light of The Silence of the Lambs, Miller’s newborn daughter is named Clarice.) Philadelphia’s defining cinematic image might remain forever the underdog empowerment of masculinity, Rocky (1976), enshrined in a bronze statue besides the iconic steps; The Philadelphia Story (1940) is ostensibly about Philadelphia, but its images are largely limited to the illustrations of the city in the opening credits. But Philadelphia might well be the great Philadelphia story even when it doesn’t go to great lengths to showcase the Liberty Bell or other landmarks (although the Founding Fathers are mentioned.) Demme is interested in Philadelphia as an idea, as we see in the opening montage of the city and in the Streets of Philadelphia music video (directed alongside his nephew and filmmaker Ted Demme).
AIDS is still a major issue, especially within underfunded and unsupported African American communities. We still need to teach the truths of sexual health and how these illnesses spread, and emphasise the pain caused even when there is medication like PrEP and a solution.