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Happy Thirtieth Anniversary, “Philadelphia!”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking legal drama starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. The movie—scripted by Fellow Travelers creator Ron Nyswaner—centers on a man wrongfully fired because he has AIDS, and his attempts to sue his workplace with the help of a homophobic small-town lawyer.

Released in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, the movie was met with critical acclaim, earning Hanks his first Oscar for Best Actor, as well as an undeniable place in queer cinema history.

Philadelphia follows Andrew “Andy” Beckett (Tom Hanks), a hard-working lawyer in one of the city’s largest firms, who has just been assigned a very important case that ensures his future there. He’s been living with AIDS for an undisclosed amount of time, with the support of his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas). But, after one of the law partners notices a lesion on his face, Andy is fired under the pretense of mishandling the case.

However, Andy’s certain that he was fired for his illness, turning to Joseph “Joe” Miller (Denzel Washington), a prejudiced lawyer that nevertheless believes in the prevalence of the law. Together, they embark in a legal battle against the law firm, who tries to disprove Andy’s testimony, as he slowly begins to succumb the disease.

The movie does a valiant and surprisingly three-dimensional job of portraying AIDS and those living with it as people worthy of dignity, love, humanity, and compassion. Jonathan Demme’s signature style of capturing his actors’ performances in tight close-ups is utilized beautifully and creates moments of intimacy, fear, and claustrophobia as Andy’s world starts to slowly crumble. Every frame is filled with empathy for its characters, with Andy clearly positioned as the hero of the story that we should sympathize and root for. The film is a purposeful attempt to bring light to AIDS, and destigmatize all assumptions and prejudices associated with it, as well as the gay community overall.

It even manages to subvert some expectations that one would expect from this kind of narrative during that time period. When the movie begins, Andy has already received his AIDS diagnosis and is living with and managing it. We don’t see the incident in which he contracts it, or the moments where he has to break down the news to his partner or his family. It’s just another element of his life that he has already accepted and integrated.

His family knows of his sexuality, his romantic relationship, and his disease, and are surprisingly accepting of them all, voicing their total support when he tells him things may get ugly during the trial. That unconditional support may not have been the norm at the time, or the most realistic depiction of what the life of a man living with AIDS might have looked like, but given the ups and downs that the story navigates, it’s refreshing (and in many ways, relieving) to see that at least those elements of his life are not bound to end in tragedy.

But what perhaps makes the movie most radical and groundbreaking for its time is not necessarily its handling or reframing of LGBTQ+ and HIV narratives, rather the way it uses the two acclaimed actors at the center to tell the story. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington were perhaps two of the biggest names in movies in 1993, at a time where the mere presence of a big star was enough to drive people to the theaters. Attaching themselves to this project meant that millions of people would go watch a story about a subject that made them uncomfortable and challenge their own beliefs. And it most likely could have meant career suicide for them. But having their names increased the film’s legitimacy, and thus its outreach with audiences.

However, even with all the care and empathy that is put on by both the filmmakers and the actors, and with a gay man’s experience at the center of the story, Philadelphia is still very much a movie made for straight audiences and their sensibilities. Although Andy is the protagonist, the POV into the story and the audience surrogate is very much Denzel Washington, whose arc goes from literally not wanting to touch Andy, to accompanying him on his deathbed. Yes, the film helped shift the broader public’s understanding of AIDS in a way that was groundbreaking (and undoubtedly helpful) for the time, but it doesn’t really do so from the gay perspective.

In this movie, Andy is a gay man living in and for a straight world, when HIV/AIDS was much more deeply ingrained into the crevices of the gay community. It was a period of time where community meant refuge, and knowledge, pain, and joy in equal measure. The movie services and absolves its straight characters (and audiences), but strips away the inherently queer roots and repercussions of AIDS. It’s of course easier to see this in hindsight. Especially when a lot of the stigma and complications have changed radically since then, in no small part thanks to movies and stories like this one, where established filmmakers and stars dared to take a big leap away from mainstream assumptions. So Philadelphia is an artifact in more ways than one; both as a testament of how a film could play a large role in reframing prejudice and stigma, but also how they often don’t even take into account the perspective of those prejudiced and stigmatized. So much has changed since then. And at the same time, so little.