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Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film “Philadelphia” presents a portrait of discrimination in its basest form. An individual is fired from his job and ostracized because his sexual orientation and illness fall outside the corporate culture in which he has secretly and successfully functioned. Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas’ characters are presented as eminently decent and thoughtful human beings whose lives are shattered by the twin evils of disease and discrimination. And, in a particularly touching segment, the film vividly illuminates the distinction between the democratic values underpinning the United States and the reality of prejudice in even the most cosmopolitan of settings:
“Judge Garrett: In this courtroom, Mr. Miller [lawyer for the AIDS-stricken victim of discrimination], justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion, and sexual orientation.
Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don’t live in this courtroom, do we?”
This brief exchange during the climactic trial scene in “Philadelphia” went right to the heart of the film’s theme: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has no place in this country. Miller, at one point, notes that
“We’re standing here in Philadelphia, the, city of brotherly love, the birthplace of freedom, where the founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal.”
With that remark, and the placement of a story, which could just as easily have transpired in any city, in the” birthplace of freedom,” Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner make very clear that homosexuality is not grounds for prejudicial treatment in American society. In one fo the film’s more educational moments – a polite way of referring to an artificial insertion of academic or legal information meant to inform the viewing public – Miller and Andy Beckett, the AIDS-stricken lawyer portrayed by Hanks, exchange information on U.S. laws prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped, which “subsequent decisions have held” include AIDS as “a handicap under the law.”
“Philadelphia’s” protagonist, Andy, is highly-educated, very good at his job, and personable. He is presented initially as having a bright future in the law firm where he is employed. Visible manifestations of his disease initiate a major transformation in his treatment by that same law firm. What a social worker can learn from this film is that good people don’t suddenly become bad people once their sexual orientation becomes public information. Homosexuals are as much a part of mankind as heterosexuals, and are as deserving of proper treatment in social and professional surroundings. They live and love and enjoy life and endure hardships just at others do, and should enjoy the privileges and rights that accompany life in America on the same level as heterosexuals.
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