In the 1980s, AIDS emerged as the leading killer of young adults. By the mid-1980s, it was the leading cause of death in men ages 25-44. In 1990, over 100,000 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Today we know that AIDS cannot be transmitted by a handshake or a hug, or by breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive. But in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, those things were not known. When someone came into contact with AIDS or HIV, they were cautious, as if they were in a leper colony. This is why Philadelphia is so important. A decade after the disease was identified, Hollywood took a risk in making a big-budget film about the disease.
It is the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who is a rising lawyer in a major and high profile law firm. The audience is given the privilege of knowing that Beckett is being treated for AIDS. The law firm, however, does not know. The senior partner of the law firm gives Beckett a case that involves the firm’s most important client.
A lesion on his forehead, however, seems to give him away. Though he claims it is a bruise from playing racket ball, it is not long before he is terminated. Beckett is pretty certain that he is being fired because of his sickness.
Beckett is not wrong in his suspicion, and he decides to take a stand. No attorney in town is willing to go up against Wheeler and his law firm. Until Beckett goes to Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Miller is “the guy from TV” as people throughout the film say as they recognize him from his TV commercials.
The only thing is Miller does not like homosexuals. He admits it his wife. He shows it when he awkwardly reacts to Beckett when he finds out that Beckett has AIDS. But after watching a librarian in the law library strongly suggest that Beckett use one of the private rooms, Miller is filled with compassion. Prejudice is prejudice.
After a costume party at Beckett’s flat, Miller sits down with him to go over questioning for the courtroom drama. In the midst of this, Beckett asks Miller, “Do you ever pray?” Beckett is somewhat taken off guard. He answers that he does, and Beckett asks him what he prays for. Miller replies back that he prayers for his wife, his daughter, for the Phillys to win.
Beckett has opera music playing during this conversation. It is one that Beckett is able to identify with his dying state, which he opening talks about over the music. Miller is visibly uncomfortable. Opera is not his thing. Beckett explains what the opera means to him.
Do you feel the pain, Joe? . . . . . . It’s filled with hope.
There is a change in Miller. He sees Beckett as any other man who loves life and fears death. The film swiftly moves to Miller’s home where he is sitting in the darkness. Miller comes out of that darkness fighting stronger for Beckett, and seeing Beckett more as a friend than a client.
Some have described AIDS as the modern-day leprosy. That may be the chance. In Jesus’ day, people with leprosy had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to announce that they were coming through. It was so that others would avoid them. Yet, Jesus touched the lepers, repeatedly throughout the Gospels, Jesus touches the untouchable.
Philadelphia reminds us that there are untouchables with us still. There are those whom society has deemed unclean. Andrew Beckett was deemed unclean by his law firm and fired for it. Wheeler tells his fellow partners, “He brought AIDS into our offices – into our men’s rooms!” However, Jesus’ actions towards the untouchables of his day was a moment of radical love! As Christians – “little Christs” – we are called to face the prejudices we hold and transform those thoughts into actions of radical love.