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Thoughts on Philadelphia

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.

Reconciliation vs Violence

While reading Country of My Skull, one of the lines that jumped off of the page for me was on page 77; the line reads, “South Africa’s shameful apartheid past has made people lose their humanity. It dehumanized people to such an extent that they treated fellow human beings worse than animals. And this must change for ever.” After reading the many stories of the ways in which victims were tortured and killed, this line held a strong weight regarding the pervasiveness of dehumanization that occurred in South Africa. 

Similarly, this line also brought to mind the same concept of the cycle of violence that was illustrated in Death and the Maiden. This made me wonder what would have happened to Paulina if she was allowed a similar opportunity to “reconcile;” from my perspective, Paulina’s radical behavior was as a result of there being no opportunity for her to obtain closure of any kind. For this reason, she took the situation in her own hands and acted in a way that was significantly more violent than what likely would have occurred at the hands of the government or a higher authority. The weight of what happened to Paulina was, to me, a result of the fact that the atrocities committed against her were dismissed because they did not end in death and she had no option for reconciliation, revenge, or closure. In the TRC, on the other hand, victims who were both dead and alive were given the chance to obtain “reconciliation.” I wonder, if this had occurred for Paulina, would her appetite for revenge have been curbed?

From my perspective, the greatest strength of the TRC was the opportunity to offer acknowledgement to the victims of violence. The system was undeniably imperfect, but it is my opinion that, if this same opportunity has been offered to Paulina, much of the violence that ensued would have been avoided. Instead, she was repeatedly accused of being mentally ill and told to move on from the incident while simultaneously being denied any opportunity for closure; in this situation, it is no wonder that she reacted in a violent and irrational way. The only way to exit the cycle of violence is to provide acknowledgement of past wrongdoings and agree to move away from them – though imperfectly, I think the TRC did this well.

The Consequences of Truth

Long Night’s Journey Into Day is a film that is well-described solely by its title; it chronicles the stories of four South Africans seeking amnesty in the aftermath of apartheid. Out of the four stories that were told, the first one was the one that had the most impact on me. Amy Biehl’s death was violent, unwarranted, and utterly unfair; despite this fact, Amy’s parents were able to forgive, and even offer comfort, to their daughter’s killer. This was able to be achieved because Amy’s parents understood the deep struggles being experienced by the killers and the actions that led them to take Amy’s life; although it was certainly unwarranted, the fact that both Amy’s murderer and her parents were able to find forgiveness reflected the TRC’s effectiveness in achieving its goals of reconciliation. It was through the full explanation of the truth that, in some of the cases shown, both sides were able to understand the motivations that fueled their actions. 

Despite the successes of Amy Biehl’s case, others were not as successful. The caveat of obtaining amnesty was that one must expose the full truth of what occurred; Robert McBride was repeatedly criticized by the sister of one of the individuals he killed in a bomb attack. Her frustration is contrasted by Robert’s own, in which he expresses his anger at having never received apologies for the oppression he faced. In the fourth portion of the film, in which it goes over the story of the “Guguleti 7,” it is revealed that one of the police officers that murdered the black activists was also black. The mothers of those that are murdered were profoundly distraught and significantly less forgiving than others had been. Their anger is magnified by the fact that he sold out and killed his “own blood.” Mbelo himself offers little comfort; in reference to the murders, he states that “It felt like a day’s work had been done.” This, to me, displayed the full nature of truth. Although it offered forgiveness and comfort in some cases, in others, it only showed the full depth of the depravity that permeates human society. 

Unreliable Justice in Death & the Maiden

When reading Death and the Maiden, one of the lines that struck me the most was when Paulina said, 

“And why does it always have to be the people like me who have to sacrifice, why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded, why always me who has to bite her tongue, why? Well, not this time. This time I am going to think about myself, about what I need. If only to do justice in one case, just one case. What do we lose? What do we lose by killing one of them? What do we lose? What do we lose?”

This, to me, was especially effective when one considers the setting of the play itself. The Investigating Commission, which I learned was based off of the Rettig Commission in real life, was a bandaid placed on a wound that badly needed surgery. In order to record the acts of cruelty committed by Pinochet’s regime, the Commission was only given 9 months’ time; this lack of time, of course, is what led to the Commission only looking into cases that ended in death. As we see with Paulina, this resulted in huge amounts of Chileans being deprived of the very human desire for justice. 

For Paulina, this meant that she would take acquiring retribution into her own hands. Throughout the play, she repeatedly states how she is going to “put him on trial.” Her violent and somewhat haphazard way of doing this was, at times, alarming to me as a reader. From my perspective, this showed the importance of codifying and regulating the legal system. When individuals are denied their justice, they take the situation into their own hands, and thus the “cycle of violence” is continued. Although Paulina will acquire retribution, killing Roberto will create yet another spiderweb of suffering and revenge.

Paulina’s desire for justice was so strong that it went beyond reason; we see this demonstrated in her interactions with Gerardo, who attempts to apply logic and reasoning in an attempt for Paulina to act more rationally. Paulina’s actions demonstrate the importance of providing closure for victims. Due to the lack of resolution in her  situation, Paulina is stuck reliving and revisiting her traumatic past and cannot move on; when one considers the weight of what she experienced, her seemingly irrational actions against Roberto make sense. Once again, Gerardo juxtaposes Paulina in regards to this; he tells her that she must move on and even goes so far as to say, “You’re still a prisoner, you stayed there behind with them, locked in that basement. For fifteen years you’ve done nothing with your life.”  What Gerardo fails to understand is that Paulina cannot simply move on from the trauma she has experienced. As a “prisoner,” she is held there against her free will and the only key that can unlock her shackles is seeing her torturers brought to justice. From this perspective, it becomes evident that having a reliable legal system is paramount for both the victims and those who committed atrocities.

Zong! & Apathy in History Classrooms

When I initially began reading Zong!, I was faced with the typical confusion that always seems to accompany this kind of poetry for me; the sparse wording and odd formatting were nothing short of disorienting, especially when combined with the complete lack of context I had with these poems. However, as I continued to read, these initial confusions only better lent themselves to the point the poetry was making. 

In classrooms in the United States, the profound tragedies experienced by the Africans as they made their way to the new world are largely left glossed over and unexplored. Apathy regarding history is something that I find to be quite prevalent due to the way history is often taught, but Zong! does a wonderful job of filling these gaps. The feelings of disorientation, confusion, and altogether frustration I felt as I was trying to decipher these poems is a direct reflection of the confusions felt by the Africans that were transported to the “New World.” I have memories of learning about this in elementary school and how inhumanely these people were treated, but these realities failed to sink in whenI was just learning them from one angle. In Zong!, I felt as though I was transported into the mind of one of these individuals. 

The elements of formatting utilized in these pieces mimic the unstructured form of natural thoughts; the confusion, frustration, and utter disorientation faced by these individuals are better felt in these poems. When reading this, it made me wonder about how history is taught in classrooms and its validity. I know that many history classes read novels to enrich their learning, but reading Zong! made me realize just how much of an asset this can be to students. Novels, poetry, and other creative works assist in the development of empathy as well as a deeper understanding of the events that occurred. In the current day, I can only see this as an enrichment to students’ learning in the United States.