2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
Philadelphia December 27, 2019
irulent racist learns racism is bad after befriending a person of color. Misogynist flirts with the idea of respecting women when he falls in love with one who won’t put up with his shit. Violent homophobe reconsiders the ugliness of homophobia after commiserating with a gay man. You know this trope. It’s one rife in many well-meaning but misguided movies about social difference where the tacit effect,
ultimately, is to make cinemagoers who have more in common with the oppressor than the oppressed feel good about what they perceive to be their own moral clarity.
Philadelphia (1993), among the first mainstream films to seriously discuss the AIDs crisis, is one such movie, though admittedly it isn't quite as egregious in its mistakes as others of its kind. It stars Denzel Washington as a bottom-feeding lawyer named Joe and Tom Hanks as a senior associate at a big-time law firm named Andrew. They are the first people we see in the movie, and they’re arguing on the opposite ends of a personal-injury case. Then we don’t see them together for a while; they’re professionals who sporadically run into each other. In ensuing scenes where we get to know them separately, we learn some things: Joe has a wife (Lisa Summerour) and baby at home; Andrew is in a happy relationship with a man named Miguel (Antonio Banderas), with whom he’s been living since the mid-1980s. Joe actually specializes in personal-injury cases and has an ad spot on TV. Andrew is so terrific at his job that, shortly into the movie, he gets promoted.
A little later, Joe's and Andrew’s pleasant, separate lives again commingle. During the first act, Andrew finds out that he has AIDs and around the same time is fired from his law firm for a frivolous reason. To Andrew, it’s clear that he was fired because of his diagnosis. Though he didn’t disclose his illness to his employers, a colleague once did verbally call attention to a lesion on his forehead. Andrew talks to lawyer after lawyer for representation. He knows he has a case for discriminatory termination. After nine rejects, he goes to Joe. The latter turns him down.
Joe, we subsequently learn, did this because he is aggressively homophobic. If it weren’t enough that he tries to clean his hand off after Andrew shakes it, then goes to the doctor after work, once home he confesses to his wife during a queasy yet comically rendered scene that he doesn’t like gay people. They gross him out. We can tell that the wife (who mentions that her aunt is a lesbian) doesn’t like what she’s hearing. But she laughs it off. Complicity is easier than a challenge.
Later in the movie, though, Joe changes his mind on representation during a chance run-in with Andrew at the local library, where it’s clear that his condition has worsened. Once Philadelphia heads into the courtroom, where much homophobic cross-examination ensues, Joe progressively unravels, more lucidly thinking about the foulness of his biases. Meanwhile, the clock ticks for Andrew.
— an inevitability, perhaps, since there’s always electricity involved in seeing bigots see their bigotry laid out and then spit at. Andrew’s very well-off family is unanimously supportive of him, and it touched me to see the universal acceptance. And I was ultimately more moved than I thought I’d be watching a film that does so much wrong. The poignancy of the movie sticks around in the throat for a while, like a resin. It has an aching quality.
Still, it’s hard to fully embrace a movie wherein a redeemed homophobe is made the hero with whom we’re being manipulated to identify, with the person suffering the tragedy — and also the person bearing the identity and affliction already little-covered in mainstream entertainment — becoming the secondary figure. In order for the bigot to find clarity, the person being discriminated against must die, the feature subliminally says. Philadelphia felt to me more interested in Joe’s absolution than the horrors faced by Andrew. We get to understand Joe’s ideologies and how he feels about what’s going on very well. It must be awful for Andrew, on top of being fired on discriminatory grounds and dying, to be represented by a lawyer who has spoken viciously of — and will react viciously if you accuse him of having — his sexuality. But that isn’t as much considered.
The imbalance is distracting. The movie’s big moment is not as much Andrew’s — spoiler alert — death as it is Joe’s eventual willingness to touch his face in compassion. What kind of movie might have Philadelphia been with some revision? It should have, I think, been told from Andrew’s perspective, not Joe’s. In 1993, it was probable that the movie’s prospects of commercial success and awards-getting might have been thwarted had it actualized this rejiggering. But it’s that cravenness that makes Philadelphia difficult to champion, and what jeopardizes its genuineness. B-
do like a lot of Philadelphia. Hanks’s performance has a palpable sensitivity and anguish to it, cogently capturing an equal dosage of despair and frustration. The writer of the movie, Ron Nyswaner, does a good job establishing the romance between Andrew and Miguel, which is portrayed as tender and finally heartrending, even with the limited amount of screen time it’s given. The courtroom scenes have a charge and terseness to them