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Here at Mr. Thursday, we really love Philadelphia and are proud to come from this great city. It’s the cradle of American liberalism, the birthplace of America (for better or for worse), the city of brotherly love, and the home of Rocky Balboa and the mighty Phightin’ Phillies. What’s not to love, right? We at Mr. Thursday are less sure, however, about Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film of the same name, the follow-up to Silence of the Lambs. Don’t get us wrong, we think it’s well acted and arresting. We also think it’s beautifully shot and a visual tribute to the great city it’s set in. But there are some ideological contradictions that we’re not sure what to make of. What follows is a cursory survey of some of the conflicting messages in the film, condensed from a paper I wrote, the last non-exam I’ll ever write in my undergraduate degree.
Let’s first consider the plot. Tom Hanks plays Andy Bennett, a gay up-and-coming lawyer in a major Philadelphia law firm who has HIV but hasn’t told his employer. He gets fired somewhat out of the blue and hires Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, to represent him in a wrongful termination suit. Miller is very homophobic at the start of the film but through his bond with Bennett, he seems to be cured, or recovered, or “gay ambivalent” if not quite “gay friendly”. I don’t want to ruin the end of the story but it’s important to note that it seems that the film wants Miller to not be homophobic anymore. And the film seems to want us to not be homophobic anymore. The message of the film is compassion: we should have compassion for those with AIDS and, not just that, we should have compassion for homosexuals because they’re “just like us.”
But the film undermines its message at almost every turn. Joe Miller invokes the Declaration of Independence during the trial. He declares that this document, drafted in the city holding the trial, places all men, not just straight men, on equal footing. But the African-American Miller citing the same document that allowed for the slavery of his ancestors makes it hard for us to take him or the document seriously. This is compounded by the fact that Miller is watching himself on TV in a bar saying this about the Declaration of Independence while telling his lawyer friends at the bar that gay people make him sick.
The central problem of the film, I think, is the same problem of Hotel Rwanda, summed up in the line from that film, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.” Philadelphia and Hotel Rwanda both severely sentimentalized the problems they hoped to address and, in doing so, made it so nothing would be done about them. It is my theory that mass media today works to make people feel, not act. How many climate change activists were actually inspired to action by An Inconvenient Truth? I was inspired to care by that film, but not to act.
So in undermining its message and in sentimentalizing Andy Bennett’s plight, Philadelphia makes it so little will be done about the AIDS crisis by its viewers. People look at Andy Bennett and say “Oh my God, that’s horrible.” But the film makes his AIDS his fault. And it’s a lot easier to go back to your dinner when you know it’s not your fault.