Analysis: Philadelphia (1993)

Gay lawyer Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) sues his former employer for discrimination because he was fired for having AIDS. He asks Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him. Joe initially refuses due to his own prejudices, but reconsiders after he faces a racist microaggression in a legal library and then watches an anti-AIDS microaggression against Andy. It’s partly inspired by Geoffrey Bowers’ case, but wasn’t intended to be a retelling of it.

This review has spoilers, but only for things it’s pretty obvious are going to happen. The plot of this film does not rely on surprise about what happens, it’s about how it happens. The trailer similarly hits a lot of plot points, but there’s far more in the movie to see and understand.

Joe Miller frequently takes anti-discrimination or social-cause cases, and he and Andy initially meet when Joe is suing a developer for gentrification and Andy is defending them. But Joe is homophobic and scared of AIDS (mostly due to misinformation and everything we didn’t know) so he refuses. He talks to his wife about it and expresses his homophobia in a monologue that has an air of Shakespeare’s best sympathetic villain monologues to it. It serves to show point-blank where he’s at in the beginning so we can understand his growth. It’s very clear this is the start of a character arc.

Joe comes to set enough of those feelings aside to take Andy’s case on principal. The movie is very good at not having hims change on the spot, though. There are still multiple scenes showing that he is still homophobic and working through things, even in some of his defense of Andy in court. Until he has a breakthrough. It’s a very beautiful and moving scene showing what part of Andy’s joy and hope gets through, and Joe literally goes home and holds his baby and his wife while rethinking his life. It’s not a subtle film in the least.

It’s written like an opera (which is talked about directly in a powerful scene: everything was really accurate to all the dynamics of the time, place, and circumstance, but exaggerated to drive the points home really clearly at a time when most people were pretty committed to not understanding it. As Miller puts it, “explain it to me like I’m a six-year-old.” It’s like how Todd in BoJack Horseman is really important to ace people as representation currently even though he’s clearly written for allo people to learn something rather than ace people to see our nuance in. Gay writer (Ron Nyswaner) knew there’s a time for complex, messy depictions like Torch Song Trilogy, and there’s a time when you hit the narrows over the head with a very blunt positive narrative delivering a clear message to challenge their beliefs. We need both at different times with different stories.

Mainstream allocishet white society didn’t want to face what discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or diagnosis looks like. It still doesn’t, and a lot of what the film explains as discrimination is still blatantly happening today. It’s a great marker for where we were from which we can measure where we are now. We made a lot of progress, but there’s plenty more work to do. “Philadelphia” wanted to break barriers, break the silence, and break the ignorance that was making it even harder for queer people and people with AIDS to live. I’d say it succeeded in those goals. Watching this 28 years later feels like watching a growth arc like Joe’s having happened to the broader society. The movie’s optimism for the future wasn’t misplaced, we just took a while to catch up to it.

There’s a lot of condensing time and having to speed-run showing things like vibrant strong supportive communities, a pattern of discrimination in society and the law firm that fired Andy, loving supportive families, easily identified AIDS symptoms, and disease progression. So sometimes it seems a little heavy-handed or theatrical, but it was less than we might think now. (Similar to how “Pig” (2021) is a fully accurate depiction of the Portland food scene with far less being exaggerated than outsiders might expect.) The scenes in “Philadelphia” are all crafted carefully to say as many things as clearly as possible as fast as possible with some shorthand. It’s a great historical record. Including that incredible opening showing the city, and the ending showing home movies of Andy as a normal child. Those were powerful statements against the backdrop of 1993 mainstream queer depictions.

It positions Andy in a very heroic, empowering, but also normalizing way and refuses to see his life as tragic even if he’s dying young. It values and respects his life so much. Joe is depicted overcoming his prejudices in order to illustrate how other people can do that as a call to action. How you can get started opening yourself up to listening, steps you can take to reevaluate your perceptions and your thinking, effects it can have on the people around you, and who those people might be.

Andy is surrounded by a loving and fully supportive family, including a wonderful longtime partner. He’s surrounded by friends and community who have a lot of joy in their lives. It never falls into sad gay tropes, & explicitly argues against any notion of death being deserved. It also directly refutes the moralizing idea that some people deserved to get it. Mrs. Benedict, a witness who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, says softly but firmly, “But I don’t consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty. I’m not innocent. I’m just trying to survive.” Andy did one reckless thing and got sick from it, and the movie is very clear that behavior doesn’t make AIDS his deserved comeuppance. Andy and Mrs. Benedict both just got unlucky in a chain of infection outside of either of their control.

In some ways it’s hard to talk about Andy’s ark because the film is clear that he’s not the one who needs to change. The progression of AIDS is changing his circumstances, and it’s clear that his 3rd act will be dying, but he doesn’t have anything to reconcile with in himself except an acceptance of his death. It’s the world that needs to change for him. His loving family doesn’t have to change. His loving partner doesn’t have to change. His loving community of friends and allies doesn’t have to change. It’s the prejudice, stigma, discrimination, and violence that needs to change. This movie has no interest in meeting the narrows “half way” when their definition of “half way” is 90% their way. This film is about the narrows meeting queer people where they are and to just shut up and listen for once.

This is the heart of why this film works: It’s about Andy being true to himself knowing this case will probably be the last thing he does and his legacy. Joe’s arc in important, but it’s clearly second fiddle. Joe is an example of Andy’s legacy, rather than some narrow-focused redemption arc. Joe changes because he realizes he was wrong and changing himself is what he owes to the people he hurt. Joe never asks for Andy’s forgiveness, and Andy never gives it. They never really have any hard conflict, and Joe mostly serves as a foil so Andy can counter any bigotry for the audience. Then Joe goes home and reflects on how Andy’s right and how that ties to Joe’s experience as a Black man. It’s a process of building solidarity to confront shared societal problems. In that you can see Ron Nyswaner hope as a gay white man that we could build more bridges between our struggles.

When we meet Andy’s family just before he files suit, they have a family meeting where Andy asks if it’s okay with them because a lot of things are going to get dragged out about his personal life and possibly their lives. His family is incredibly supportive and proud all around. His mom says, ” Well, I didn’t raise my kids to sit in the back of the bus. You get in there and you fight for your rights, okay?” Obviously this is a reference to Rosa Parks and the Black Civil Rights Movement, and I can see why that might fall a little flat coming from a white woman. But it’s also a direct reference to an influential article by gay rights organizer and politician Harvey Milk published in the Bay Area Reporter April 1, 1976 called “The Gay Movement… just what is it?

My concept is for us to use what I learned from the other movements: a steady positive
force. Always trying to build bridges between the communities. Always seeking what should be ours. As I learned from the Black Movement – sitting in the back of the bus is not the answer. Going along for the ride, if it means second class citizenship, is not the way for freedom. I’d rather walk!

I have found there are many people who want to ride in the back of the bus and are satisfied with the crumbs offered. That probably will never get the gay community our freedom.

Harvey Milk

The article was was reprinted in the linked 1996 issue, 20 years later, as part of the paper’s 25th anniversary look back on the queer rights movement, and Milk’s continually inspiring legacy. (He was assassinated in 1978.) Another article in that 1996 issue, “Harvey Milk remembered” by Tavo Amador, framed it well:

[Randy Shilts] says Harvey’s 1977 campaign was successful because, by showing how much gay people had in common with other marginalized groups, he connected with the electorate in ways that transcended sexual orientation without minimizing it. In this he differed from his more “orthodox” gay opponent, Rick Stokes. Milk made his homosexuality no more relevant than his eye color.

Tavo Amador

This is precisely what “Philadelphia” was trying to achieve: help people understand we have more in common than we do differences. We all just want safety, love, respect, and peace, and we can build that if we work together and overcome our biases. Maybe I’m being idealistic, but I hope that’s a message the white gay community also internalized from it regarding racism. That is, after all, a two-way street with many intersections.

Overall, this is a great example of how sometimes choosing big names over same identity casting can be really important to representation when the role is taken seriously and compassionately. Sometimes you need the subtlety of direct experience. Other times you need asses in the seats and eyes on the screen so the message gets through to the most people possible. We’re in a far better place now where there are big name queer actors, and there are lots of asses happy to flock to those seats. So we have the luxury of being able to advocate for same-identity casting now. Though that should mostly be understood as giving queer actors a fair shot at work, since they’re often rejected for roles (especially trans actors these days).

To Denzel Washington’s credit, he’s clearly acting homophobia for a role, not looking for an opportunity to be bigoted. He plays it in a stirring way that gets the point across, but knows exactly when and where to pull the punch just enough to not make a queer audience feel actually threatened by his performance. It’s like a good theater stage fight where the effect of the blow is obvious and convincing, but you’re also given enough space to know no one was really going to get hurt. In 1993, that’s a powerful consideration to a community who was mostly only shown as getting hurt and deserving it by Hollywood. Washington has the same energy in this as actor John Lacy, playing the homophobic Big Daddy in an LA revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, getting in an altercation with a homophobic audience member.

Tom Hanks, too, takes this role seriously with kindness and heart. He doesn’t ever have that bad vibe of “clueless straight man plays gay character.” He cared about doing right with this story for the gay people we was very close to. What he could most offer in taking the part as a straight man was visibility, but he clearly knew that wouldn’t mean much if the representation was bad. He did his homework, and he fills the role well. It never feels overacted for what the scene demands or imagines things from a place of ignorance.

I really loved this film, and I think it has a lot to say that’s just as reverent in 2021 as it was in 1993. In part as a time capsule. In part because we’re going through another epidemic with another growing stigma and a new moralizing blame. 6 out of 10 of those who died from Covid-19 had preexisting conditions, i.e. disabilities. Like the queer community during AIDS, disabled people’s lives have been routinely written off as expendable. People who can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons or can’t perfectly comply with best practices due to their conditions are being routinely conflated with those who choose not to out of stubbornness and violent contrarianism. Even if there’s good reason for that anger and frustration due to a conservative culture of minimizing and denial, stigma like “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” only really serves to burn bridges that need to be crossed.

But I’m also aware there are big differences with COVID-19 and AIDS due to the vector of infection and rate of spread. In 1993 people were still afraid that AIDS could be spread by casual contact (a fear this film is very overt in showing, and explicitly refutes). In 2021, Covid-19 spreads not just through contact but presence in the same room. For a species that needs some physical contact for survival, that’s not something we’re handling very well.

AIDS patients and their families weren’t fist-fighting healthcare workers over the diagnosis so often that traumatized workers quit when we need them most. There were far fewer people spreading AIDS deliberately and they certainly weren’t hero-worshiped by the mainstream media. There wasn’t a vaccine and there weren’t anti-vaxxers. It’s not the same, but there are similarities we’d do well to recognize before we repeat past mistakes. Especially that disease is never an arbiter of morality and every single infection, whatever they did or didn’t do, is still a person trying to survive. Many won’t. Many more will survive with permanent disabilities in a system without the resource, knowledge, or compassion to help people who may never get better. I worry, in our future, how many of them will be further cut off by stigma and discrimination.

I think a slue of workplace discrimination cases are going to be brought soon. I know from hard experience that companies will push you out the moment your disability starts hindering their already unrealistic performance metrics. Geoffrey Bowers’ case is likely to serve as precedent for some of them.

Content Warnings:

  • Homophobia
  • Aggressive response to being hit on by a queer person
  • Racist microaggressions
  • Ableism
  • AIDS + discrimination
  • Workplace discrimination
  • Hospitals
  • Weight loss
  • Skin lesions
  • Progression of fatal illness
  • Queer death

The trailer shows the levels of those CWs pretty accurately. The depiction of progressing illness is pretty intense, though.