When I was initially selecting what to watch for this project, I chose Philadelphia simply because I saw Tom Hanks. I had very little context for what the movie was about or what kind of story it would tell. What I did not expect was the total sobbing mess I would be after this movie; I’m not sure if it was the isolation or Hanks’s excellent acting, Philadelphia was incredibly emotional and affecting to watch.
One of the elements of this movie that struck me so squarely was the flipping of a typical set of roles taken in this type of narrative. When we first meet Andrew Beckett, he’s a typical intelligent, high-powered lawyer that seems destined for greatness. He follows the typical archetypes that are typically common in Hollywood’s representation of individuals in this role – white, masculine, and very intelligent. This immediate impression, though, is presented with a stark juxtaposition of Beckett obtaining treatment at a clinic for AIDS; it presents to the viewer how different the mask Beckett puts on for his career is from his reality as an AIDS patient.
Similarly, in the scene where Beckett believes he is wrongfully fired and seeks legal aid, he finally obtains it from Joe Miller, a young lawyer he previously encountered at the beginning of the film, after speaking to a large number of other lawyers that wouldn’t represent him. Miller’s character is one, I think, that the audience was intended to identify with at the time period in which it was released. He is not, as one might expect, a shining beacon of altruism or a warrior for LGBT rights at the beginning of the film. He’s homophobic in a way that I’m sure many of the viewers could identify with; he was not aggressively against MSM, but still harbored a sense of disgust, a lack of understanding towards them, and repeatedly showed how disgusted and offended he was at the idea of being mistaken for one himself.
Another facet of the relationship between Miller and Beckett that struck me very squarely was that Miller, the lawyer representing Beckett, was Black. This is a flipping of the typical narrative we see in these situations; the presence of the “white savior” complex is one that is undeniable in many media. However, in this situation, the individual with the power was the one who was Black. This brought to my mind the reading of Crenshaw’s Mapping the Margins from a couple weeks ago. Both Miller and Beckett are characters that exist outside of their typical “dimensions” as characters. Beckett, as a white man, undeniably possesses more power in this society and was even shown as successful over Miller at the beginning of the film; there’s a great scene at the beginning of the movie in which they’re on opposing sides and Beckett emerges victorious. However, once Beckett’s identity as a homosexual man is revealed, the power dynamic between the two men greatly shifts. In this situation, Beckett’s identity as a homosexual man supersedes his white masculinity and he must rely on Miller.
Similarly, the law itself nearly failed to take into account the marginalized experiences of MSM. One of the common arguments made against Beckett in the film is that his homosexuality was his choice. They state repeatedly that Beckett’s decisions to engage in sexual activity with other men was something that was inherently full of risk and his choice to engage was made with complete understanding of the chance of AIDS and, therefore, his employers were not necessarily in the wrong to punish him for something that was represented as his “choice.” This was really interesting to see, simply because this showed the viewers that this firing was not as a result of a fear of illness, but rather as a fear of MSM in general; we see this clearly when the other AIDS victim in the company was brought to the stand. A distinction was made regarding her case because she was infected via a blood transfusion, whereas Beckett’s was from sexual activity. Though she herself states that she does not blame this disease on anyone, her status as a straight, white woman who fits closer to the established societal roles than Beckett makes her seem as more of a “victim” and less of someone who “chose” the disease, as the opposition makes the case for.
Another facet of the film that struck me was Beckett’s death at its conclusion. This called to mind Tom Robinson’s death in TKAM, which shared a few characteristics. While Robinson was ultimately found unfairly guilty and died, Beckett’s case was successful and held symbolic weight even though he did not survive to see the progress of the decision on society. I think this is because Philadelphia is, ultimately, a much more hopeful story than TKAM was. If Beckett’s trial had occurred in Maycomb, I doubt the jury would have sided in his favor – MSM are frequently demonized and ostracized even today.
One of the most depressing realizations I had from this movie was that Miller’s beginning sentiments towards MSM were ones that I was very much familiar with in my own encounters throughout life, except these sentiments have not changed and instead are very deeply ingrained in many people I’ve been exposed to. The happy ending made the movie less depressing to watch, but I’m not sure such a situation would have been decided in reality. The victorious end to this movie and the consistent black and whiteness to the morality of the individuals in this movie made it a bit less effective than I believe it could’ve been. Overall, though, I greatly enjoyed the movie and can imagine the incredible impact it had on society during its release; as one of the first movies to truly tackle the issue of the AIDS epidemic, it shines a bright light on what I’m sure were the many shared sentiments of the viewers towards MSM as well as the inherent hypocrisy that accompanied them.
2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Philadelphia”
Great observations here about the way in which Miller’s race is crucial to the connection the case (and the film) draw across different varieties of discrimination. I am not familiar with the acronym MSM. Should I be?
It’s an acronym used during the AIDS crisis to describe men who have sex with men! Considering that the AIDS crisis affected more than just homosexual men(bisexual, pansexual, etc.), I thought this was the best identifier of the affected population to use. It’s kind of an uncommon term, so I probably should’ve clarified in my post!
Here’s a link to the wikipedia page: