|

The Trials of Love, Justice, and Prejudice: Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia

tumblr_inline_nlit5ouaoe1tqd1vu_500

By Daniel Garrett.

In the film Philadelphia (1993), written by Ron Nyswaner and directed by Jonathan Demme, the actor Tom Hanks is impressive for being able to incarnate several perspectives in one man – states of health and malady, youth and sudden age, but also the public and private man, powerful and vulnerable, conventional and bohemian. In playing the character Andrew Beckett, a successful Philadelphia lawyer, a beloved son, brother, and uncle, and a homosexual who has the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and whose law firm fires him, Tom Hanks might have chosen to portray the character as a marginal man, strange, miserable, and doomed – but Hanks as Andrew Beckett remains recognizably human and whole. The actor Tom Hanks – apparently a man of decency and intelligence – makes himself into a bridge, a bridge between discordant states, a bridge in a polarized culture. With him is the charismatic and gifted Denzel Washington as a talented but bigoted lawyer, Joe Miller, who has operated on a more mundane level of the legal profession – Joe Miller represents victims of circumstance and has commercials on television. Washington and Hanks make a great duo. They appear first as adversaries in a court case, then Washington’s Joe Miller refuses to take Andrew Beckett’s employment discrimination case, but sees Andrew again in a law library and begins to ask some basic questions about his legal complaint – and soon Joe is representing him with intelligence, imagination, and some courage. Denzel Washington as Joe Miller represents the best and worst of the American citizen; and Washington is easily convincing – intensely declaring his own disgust with homosexuality – in a film that revolves around employment discrimination, social prejudice. Denzel Washington registers the changes in consciousness and empathy that Hanks’ character inspires.

Social prejudice is ordinary; and it is a corrosive fuel in the engine of society. The film Philadelphia, written by the man who co-wrote Smithereens (1982) and wrote Mrs. Soffel (1984), Ron Nyswaner, and produced by the film’s director Jonathan Demme with Edward Saxon, is thoughtful: perceptible effort has been made to construct a film that articulates the important factors involved in a homosexual life and a medical diagnosis of the immune illness – apprehension, discretion, pleasure, rejection, transcendence; and constant experimental treatments, empathy, suffering – while the film represses or transforms the established prejudices that might occur to the ordinary mind. Yet, the film has several moments of grace and insight: there is grace in the opening and closing images scored to songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, and grace in a reverie regarding a Maria Callas performance shared by Hanks’ character Andrew with Washington’s character Joe. When I first saw the film in the early 1990s, I liked it but found it a little predictable and disjointed; but watching it recently I was surprised by its genuine vitality and how much more seamless it seemed.

Philadelphia had been partly inspired by the experiences of men such as Geoffrey Bowers in Chicago and Clarence Cain in Philadelphia, lawyers who believed they were fired for having AIDS. It seems now at once a rhetorical work of cultural history – while many attitudes have become more liberal in the interim since it was made – and also an embodiment of a significant experience – the death of the beloved – that retains an appeal and potency. “We got together and tried to come up with a movie that would help push for a cure and save lives,” director-producer Jonathan Demme reflected in a report commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the film on the site of the organization NewsWorks (December 20, 2013; accessed November 2014). Writing in the Los Angeles Times at the time of the film’s release, the film critic Kenneth Turan declaredPhiladelphia is a milestone. Though it is going where books, plays, television movies and independent films have all gone before, having a sympathetic major star like Tom Hanks playing a man dying of AIDS could be as powerful societally as having a star like Rock Hudson announcing the same in real life” (December 22, 1993). Jonathan Demme’s collaborators were the film’s production designer Kristi Zea and its cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, and its editor Craig McKay and music composer Howard Shore. To NewsWorks, Demme explained, “We didn’t want to make a film that would appeal to an audience of people like us, who already had a predisposition for caring about people with AIDS […]. We wanted to reach the people who couldn’t care less about people with AIDS. That was our target audience.”

Essential to the film’s power and persuasion is Tom Hanks. Born in California in 1956, and a student at Skyline High School, Chabot College, and California State University, Tom Hanks appeared in the films He Knows You’re Alone (1979), Splash! (1984), Big (1988), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), A League of Their Own (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Philadelphia (1993). He was lauded for his roles in Forest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), before directing the film That Thing That You Do! (1996). Tom Hanks, subsequently, was featured in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Cast Away (2000), Road to Perdition (2002), Charlie Wilson’s War (2008), and Cloud Atlas (2012).

I must admit that Hanks is a performer I was introduced to, but somehow forgot about. I had not watched much of his 1980s television show Bosom Buddies, in which he and Peter Scolari played marketing guys who dressed as women to keep an apartment in a women-only building. I suspect now that his dressing as woman required courage, and was liberation for whatever else he might do. I recall Tom Hanks in the Penny Marshall motion picture Big, released in January 1988, in which Hanks plays a boy who is incarnated in the body of a young man, something that allows the boy to experience adult liberties, pleasures, and duties; and the young man’s joyful, imaginative sensibility has a liberating effect on the actual adults he meets, some of whom have lost the capacity for creativity and joy. I liked Hanks in the part. That film augured how Tom Hanks would come to embody the possibilities of the American male – possibilities for adventure and compassion and responsibility. I missed a lot of his other work (fearing sentimentality) – until Philadelphia. It was only recently that I began to catch up with Tom Hanks again. I have been impressed by Road to Perdition and Charlie Wilson’s War and Cloud Atlas and Captain Phillips.

Road to Perdition (2002), written by David Self and directed by Sam Mendes, is a film about fathers and sons and also about organized crime, American Irish division. The responses –love, exasperation, rage, indulgence, protection, and teaching – between one generation and another are portrayed, but the film, which is masterful in most respects, a beautiful, engaging, and even intelligent film, does not go deep enough in its examination of love and ethics. It rests too much on assumptions about men and family and violence in a story about a curious boy who witnesses the most violent aspect of his father’s work and thus, as a witness, puts his whole family in mortal danger. The father and son escape to travel to a town where the boy’s aunt lives, with a hired tracker on their trail: Tom Hanks is the father, Michael Sullivan, and Tyler Hoechlin his son, Michael Jr, with Jude Law as Maguire, the murderous assassin and photographer on their trail. Paul Newman is the man Hanks works for, the crime boss John Rooney, and Daniel Craig is John’s son Connor, a mean, grinning criminal. The characters of Hanks and Newman had a good relationship until the trouble caused by Newman’s greedy, violent son; and yet, when the two men meet after Hanks’ as Michael returns with evidence of Connor’s theft and betrayal of his father, John Rooney calls both himself and Michael murderers. They can claim no moral ground – an irony as they stand in a church basement. Hanks as Michael Sullivan is calm and deliberate, efficient and practical – he seems good despite his criminal work.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, is a comedy of politics, full of intelligent lines and historical facts that still sting. An entertaining record of recent events, it shows how a minor congressman helped to aid the Afghan war against the invading Soviet Union, but failed – through lack of congressional support – to help that country, Afghanistan, rebuild its infrastructure, a failure that would lead to future trouble. Some of the best – probably the best – American political films have been comedies. This one has a woman-chasing, coke-snorting, plain-speaking American congressman as its hero, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), with Julia Roberts as a Christian Texas socialite with an interest in the Middle East, Joanne Herring, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a shrewd, rough CIA guy, Gust Avrakotos. It is the least likely group of heroes – and theirs is genuine heroism: in the face of the ignorance and indifference of others, they do something necessary, something important. The sleepwalking bureaucracy that the congressman and his associates must contend with, as well as the conflicting ideologies of different countries, is with us today. This is one more film that Hanks has made that matters. It is one of the best political comedies, along with Bob Roberts, Bulworth, Casino Jack, A Day without a Mexican, Dear White People, Dr. Strangelove, Election, The Great Dictator, Hollywood Shuffle, Little Big Man, Nashville, Primary Colors, Thank You for Smoking, and Wag the Dog.

In Cloud Atlas (2012), an interpretation of a novel by David Mitchell that was written for the screen and directed by the Wachowski siblings with Tom Tykwer, I was impressed by the sudden viciousness of one of the characters – an enraged author demolishes his critic at a party – and it was not until a second screening of the film that I realized the actor playing him was Tom Hanks. Hanks, like Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess, played several characters in that imaginative film of history and the future, of slavery and freedom. In Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (2013), with a screenplay by Billy Ray (based on the book by its subject, Richard Philips with Stephan Talty), the maturity of Tom Hanks, his easy command, makes it possible to believe in him as a ship captain. One has no doubt in him at all. That fact alone says a great deal about him. The film, focused on an American ship captain’s encounter with Somali pirates, was torn from the headlines, as they say; and for us, the film audience, it is a penetrating picture of the privilege and poverty in the world today. It is now impossible not to think of Tom Hanks as a great actor – a mastery he first proved with Philadelphia.

Jonathan Demme, the director of Philadelphia (1993), has made several memorable films, though like many American artists who have wanted to say something of radical importance, Demme has not always been at the absolute center of the culture: in 1980, he gave us Melvin and Howard; and then Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Beloved (1998), The Truth About Charlie (2002), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Rachel Getting Married (2008), and A Master Builder (2013). In Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme examines sexual and social prejudices that inhibit personal freedom and threaten social status. The history of western civilization has been more and more organized around the individual and his or her liberties: the liberty of moral judgment, of public and private speech, and of civil and political participation. The liberty to pursue one’s own pleasures, with time, has moved from being seen as a moral vice to a legal and political right. History has had its periods of repression and liberation; and the sexual revolution of the latter part of the twentieth century recognized increased personal freedom – especially for youth, women, and homosexuals. However, when something goes wrong with the expression of freedom – some abuse, accident, fault, mistake, reversal of fortune, or sickness – we tend to question the basic freedom: consequently, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome, often acquired amid promiscuous sexual behavior, was seen by some as the moral judgment of divinity or nature. In Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme interrogates prejudice; and he refuses to accept it.

67ff0847ce_6266638_lrgPhiladelphia may not contain the kind of natural beauty and raw truth that some prefer in cinema – an antidote to a cultivated, sometimes stifling modern life – nor does it contain many of the wild experiments of creative and intellectual freedom that are the best of modernity – but the film is a work of dramatic, rhetorical, and symbolic power, a work of civilization: the cultivation of mind and spirit. Watching Philadelphia again, it is easy to see that what originally added to the sense of disjunction were the actual differences between the lives of the two central characters, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington): Beckett is white, gay, and upscale; and Joe is black, heterosexual, and struggling. Andrew Beckett is ill, dying, and Joe Miller remains young and vital – and Joe’s wife has just given birth to their first child. The film moves us, the film audience, from one to the other; and we see the contrasts.

philadelphiaThe film begins with the landmarks and social scenes of Philadelphia, with people going to work or in the midst of play: Philadelphia, a town that grew where the Schuykill river meets the Delaware river, founded in 1682 and incorporated in 1701, the place where the nation’s constitution was drafted, a city of farms and fish and trains and factories and schools and theaters, a center of community and culture. Some of the film’s images have the simplicity of ordinary truth – whether a glance of an old woman walking down the street or girls rehearsing for a performance or a jogging man or a homeless person resting on the ground, we believe that what we see is real. “Set with conscious irony in the City of Brotherly Love, where the attorneys have a reputation for legal sharpness (it used to be said that three Philadelphia lawyers were a match for the devil), Philadelphia immediately introduces us to two members of that tribe as they meet in a judge’s chambers to argue the opposite sides of a case,” noted Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. The first acted scene has Tom Hanks’ Andrew Beckett and Denzel Washington as Joe Miller facing a judge – a woman judge, but also facing us, the film audience: each is a man of charm and logic and insistence. They are in opposition, in a case involving a powder found near a construction site, with Beckett representing a corporation and Miller representing local citizens; and near the end of the film they will be together, collaborators, and possibly friends. Andrew Beckett’s day is full, going from the legal meeting with the judge and Joe Miller, to a medical center where Beckett is tested, and receives a medical treatment while listening to opera, before going to his law firm where Beckett is warmly greeted, and where he works into the night before being brought to the firm’s partners to receive a great assignment.

3097599907_1_15_U0HZbWgwAndrew Beckett, a young lawyer, seems, in many ways at the top of the world, working for Wyatt, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow and Brown. With the legal firm’s partners, Beckett is asked for his thoughts and given a great opportunity to take on a case that has value for the firm, for Andrew, and for the client, involving intellectual property. The partners smoke cigars and drink deep glasses of wine (one wonders if a cigar is merely a cigar, and a cup merely a cup: the firm’s leader, Charles Wheeler, played by Jason Robards, has a cigar in one hand and a wine glass in the other: if that were sexual symbolism, one could see him as erotically voracious). Andrew Beckett thanks Charles Wheeler for having faith in him, and Wheeler replies that faith is required when there is no evidence and that does not apply here; and Charles Wheeler and Andrew Beckett shake hands and embrace at the end of the encounter. The one odd moment is when one of the partners – Walter Kenton (Robert Ridgely) – asks Andrew about a mark on Andrew’s forehead: Andrew says it is a bruise, but it is the beginning of a Kaposi sarcoma lesion. Andrew gets a friend to offer cosmetic tips for disguising his lesions.

1846589,MqveFMRzikFV7Hc_8n63Uc1ipmVb1vLp9msrFhS3XaEtcAt+Fsvlg6ONLfyZMTzjSXWrTFvr7eQHr2OVvq3ulg==Unfortunately, Andrew is becoming more ill. His stomach disorder prompts a trip to the hospital – where his lover Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas) rushes to his side; a crisis at the same time that Andrew has to turn in a legal document for the prestigious case. While at the hospital, Andrew Beckett sees one of Joe Miller’s television commercials seeking clients: one student, Catherine Marcks, saw the film, then read Demme’s script for the film, and commented, “Andrew’s laughter after watching Miller’s commercial in the hospital is an ironic reaction to a statement that questions guilt or innocence among the ill. Joe essentially says that if your suffering has been caused by anyone other than yourself, you may be eligible for legal solutions. Does this imply that those suffering from illness or accidents can be deemed guilty and, therefore, deserve the outcome of their actions making them unworthy of legal aid?” (posted on the internet log A Moral Compass by the Sweet Briar College professor John Gregory Brown, for his English class on Navigating Life and Art, October 24, 2010). Catherine Marcks reminds us that different kinds of illnesses, but especially the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), have been seen as punishments, making it permissible to withhold sympathy or help.

Andrew Beckett had been working on an important legal case for his firm, on intellectual property. Andrew had completed the work, and brought it to his office, leaving it on his desk for his secretary. The necessary legal document has been – it is claimed – misplaced, leading to Andrew Beckett’s firing; although Andrew believes the real reason for his termination is his illness. Andrew attempts to find a lawyer to represent him in court: and he visits nine lawyers before visiting Joe Miller, who is not comfortable with homosexuality or AIDS. Joe Miller learns Andrew has AIDS, then moves away from Andrew and watches everything Andrew touches in Joe’s office. The way the camera follows Joe’s eyes and Andrew’s hands is a documentation of suspicion. Joe Miller rejects Andrew Beckett’s request for representation; and Andrew leaves Miller’s office, looking worried, one of the film’s many striking intimate views of a face.

bb5c6c45323b3689421a31e9c9946031Joe Miller, fearing contamination by Andrew Beckett, goes to his own longtime doctor for a consultation – and the doctor tells him that the disease can be contracted only through body fluids – specifically through blood transfusion, intravenous drug use, or sexual contact. The disease was both known and ignored: it was first diagnosed in the early 1980s with the sighting of rare cancers and pneumonia in men who had sex with men, men who died mere months after a diagnosis. Groups such as Black and White Men Together and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention began to raise awareness about the disease, followed by Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP; however, it took time for people in science and government to give the disease their full attention. Isolation and prejudice were factors in the perception and treatment of the disease. It was a horrifying disease – I recall visiting an acquaintance, a black gay writer, in the hospital: his skin was peeling off him in curls, like bark off a tree. In the film Philadelphia, at home Joe Miller has a conversation with his small, bright, honest, short-haired wife Lisa (Lisa Summerour). Joe Miller does not think he knows anyone who is homosexual, but his wife Lisa notes several people in their circle, family and friends and service providers, who are gay, male and female. Subsequently, while at a law library, Washington’s slim, handsome Joe Miller is slowly cruised by a lurking white male, before Joe sees Andrew Beckett’s interaction with an addled library clerk. Joe first hides behind large law books, then walks to Andrew’s table (Joe recognizes that he lacks the language and maturity to fully face Andrew). Joe greets Andrew, then asks questions about Andrew’s lawsuit and the two men talk about discrimination and legal precedents, and issues of stigma and social death. It is the beginning of their significant association, of their collaboration on the legal case.

Should Andrew Beckett have told his employer about his illness? Was it right to fire Andrew for the fact of his illness? What is good, healthy, intelligent, right and just are subjects for debate; and yet the history of law in the human world is an old one, including the transmission of custom, influenced by superstition, as articulated from elder generation to younger generation; in China in year 2853 B.C., to the punishment codes in Mesopotamia of 2350 B.C., and the harsh laws established by Draco for Greece in 621 B.C., to King Aethelbert’s written Saxon (German) laws in England in year 600 after Christ’s death (later found in the Roffensis text, circa 1120 A.D.)., to the Magna Carter of 1215 A.D., in which English barons won individual liberty from King John, as well as the customary laws of authority, marriage, and inheritance in African countries, down to the creation of the founding constitution of the United States of America, which created the first republican government, partly inspired by the constitution of the Iroquois confederacy – a government of, for, and by the people. The practice of law remains of great concern for us as citizens and appreciators of cultural discourse: the rules for public and private behavior are often decided in court cases. Some of the distinguished films that focused on the law are Amistad (1997), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Breaker Morant (1980), Compulsion (1959), Dead Man Walking (1995), Erin Brockovich (2000), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Inherit the Wind (1960), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Michael Clayton (2007), My Cousin Vinny (1992), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Verdict (1982), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Is Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia a suitable addition to the list?

axBBBGO4ui0JzF9wBaAGFYCEEuU“On a scene-by-scene basis, in terms of performance and the grave issues under consideration, the film is quite absorbing. Through the character of Joe, Nyswaner and Demme have found a shrewd way of dealing with the audience’s discomfort with the subject of AIDS, and it’s both realistic and dramatically admirable that Joe never comes around entirely to an enlightened perspective,” wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety (December 6, 1993). Todd McCarthy commended the film’s editing and score, but McCarthy lamented the lack of exploration given to the relationship of Andrew and his gorgeous lover Miguel (Banderas), while noting the obvious social opposition in the film – the multicultural community represented by Andrew and his associates versus the elite law firm of mostly old white male partners.

Philadelphia, like so many classics of this lofty genre (To Kill a Mockingbird), tries the beliefs of the American people. Are they as noble as they imagine? Is not this a land where all men are created equal – or must they be straight men?” wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post (January 14, 1994), a reviewer who considered the film calculating and sentimental but also “devastating.”

In Philadelphia, as Andrew Beckett and Joe Miller prepare for the court proceedings, Andrew warns his family that the case will include disclosures about his private life; and Andrew asks his family if they are prepared for that. The family’s members are loving, supportive, proud. It is ideal to have such a family – in the world, and in this film. Is it too ideal? It is necessary support – what should exist. When the court case begins, and accusations of dishonesty and recklessness are thrown at Andrew, the support is balance – balance for the significant social opposition. One woman who received a blood transfusion during childbirth is a witness, and she identifies herself as a survivor, as neither good nor bad, rejecting the label of virtue applied to some sufferers and not others. She testifies that one of the law firm partners, Walter Kenton (Robert Ridgely), knowing her condition, treated her poorly when she worked with him at another firm (when that law partner gets on the stand he tells of his youthful participation in a harassment of a fellow sailor thought to be gay). A colleague of Andrew’s, Anthea Burton (Anna Deavere Smith), claims that comments of cultural and ethnic bigotry were passed on to her – and that Anthea Burton cannot believe the partners did not know Andrew had health issues, when his looks and weight fluctuated. Is Andrew one man bearing the weight of a society’s hatred? Joe Miller, following his own violent response to a young black man’s sexual approach in a pharmacy, brings the matter of sexual orientation or preference and the hostility to homosexuality out in court, saying that this hostility is the real subject of the trial.

When, at home, Andrew resists one of his intravenous medical treatments – his veins seem to be refusing to cooperate – Andrew and Miguel argue a little, then briefly discuss Andrew’s probable death, and Andrew decides to have a party with their friends and associates. It is a costume party, at which different kinds of music is heard, including a male acapella group and a rhythm-and-blues singer. It is director Jonathan Demme’s invocation of bohemian and gay culture, just as Demme’s casting of certain characters points to the real world existence of alternative sensibilities (performance artist Karen Finley as Doctor Gillman, playwright-performer Anna Deavere Smith as paralegal department head Anthea Burton, and avant-garde Wooster Group participant Ron Vawter as law partner Bob Seidman, who has some sympathy for Andrew). The party’s couples dance – Andrew and Miguel, Joe and Lisa – but while dancing Joe looks at Andrew. Joe is contemplating what it is like to see two men dancing; but, also, with Andrew in his eyes, Joe is dancing with Andrew too. When the party has ended, Andrew and Joe sit down to talk about the case, but Andrew goes into a long discussion of a Maria Callas song: the scene is expressionistic, intense, and full of shifting light and shadow and Andrew’s tears. It is a new intimacy – anguish, insight, transcendence – with a man who is dying. Joe returns home, more attentive to his own family, his wife and baby.

Warren French, writing in a summary for the online Film Reference (accessed November 2014), declared of Philadelphia:

HanksPhillyOpera“The film is a very rare example of the oldest form of drama in the European tradition, classical tragedy in a medium that has been almost entirely exploited by melodrama. So far the most substantial and challenging reservations about the film have been directed at the sudden change three-quarters of the way through, from the neutral naturalism of the visual image to an unprecedented surrealistic sequence during an interview between Beckett and Joe Miller, his attorney. Miller has been trying to keep his client’s mind on the testimony that he will give the next day; but Beckett becomes evasive and puts on a recording of Maria Callas singing the aria ‘La Momma Morta’ from Umberto Giordano’s opera André Chénier. The screen is suffused with a demonic red glow as a smoldering fireplace blazes forth, symbolizing the passionate fire burning in Beckett.”

Warren French goes on to say that the scene connects the Hanks character, through Maria Callas singing the aria “La Momma Morta,” with the exiled and wounded archer Philocetes, whom the Greeks needed for their triumph in the Trojan War.

originalIt is not rare that the stranger, the eccentric, the outsider, the wounded man, knows things, and has skills, that the society would prefer not to recognize or respect but which the society needs. That knowledge is true of Philocetes, and it may be true of Andrew Beckett – not just as a lawyer but as a man who loves men. When Andrew describes the firm’s leader Charles Wheeler (Robards) with admiration, it is obvious that Andrew has seen the man’s finest qualities, has respected and loved him – and that there are few people who could or would be so eloquent on the subject of another man’s virtues. Charles Wheeler’s face shows that Charles knows Andrew’s words are rare and sincere. It is one of Andrew’s best moments on the witness stand, but as Andrew is interrogated by Charles Wheeler’s woman lawyer, Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen), who is assisted by a black male lawyer, Jerome Green (Obba Babatunde), Andrew does not feel well, and the camera goes lopsided – what is seen is tilted at an irregular angle. Andrew is asked about his lesions; and his own lawyer compels him to show the worst of them. It is a horrifying but necessary moment for all – the fact of a fatal illness, in the discernable flesh.

1846565,j8lRRzimVq0aW57pvmyVDqVmzOSWbpC9rjF0BAr1M6cCpzdB7gSn3YZw+bRYHkEGwyQHkgDu163xeErIJvHxhA==When Charles Wheeler testifies, he says that although Andrew Beckett was recruited and pampered by the firm, Andrew failed to deliver on his promise, and, thus, was fired. Joe Miller asks Charles Wheeler about his own response to Andrew – the fear and insecurity that Andrew’s sexuality and disease might have caused in Wheeler, whether it forced Wheeler to think about their – Charles and Andrew’s – moments of intimacy differently. It is a question that alludes to the roots of ostracism in fears of the self. In Sigmund Freud’s book Totem and Taboo (1913), a work devoted to discussing civilization and barbarism, and also incest, ambivalence, magical thinking, and fear and sacrifice, Freud describes projection as born of ambivalence – between affection and hostility: projection is an inclination to see one’s own feelings – feelings one does not claim – as possessed by another person: the hate or fault or vice is seen to be held not by one’s self but by someone else. A feeling – whether of desire or loathing – that has been discouraged by society is less likely to be claimed by the self: desire or love of one man by another man is one such feeling (dishonesty and greed and lust are other feelings or qualities that are disowned). One becomes fixated on what has been prohibited: attracted and repulsed. One can, for several instances, be attracted to qualities of sensitivity and sensuality, of liberty and pleasure, that are attributed to characters (black or ethnic; female; gay) considered weak – qualities that are disfavored or punished – and be motivated to repudiate them. Of course, that idea has become something of a cliché.

The person perceived as other is he or she who is different: more or less, better or worse; usually he or she is the carrier of qualities and habits the more powerful members of society do not want to claim. The Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, a writer of literature, criticism, and sociology in the French language, himself occupied different realities – both Jew and Arab, bourgeois and marginal – and Albert Memmi wrote about what it meant to be other. In The Colonizer and the Colonized (published in 1957 in French; and in 1965 in English by Beacon Press), Memmi examines how political positions become identities, how people defend themselves as victors or victims, protecting privilege and proclaiming virtue, or taking refuge in group identity, ignorance, passivity, and false pride; and in Decolonization and the Decolonized (published 2004 in French; and 2006 in English by the University of Minnesota), Memmi discusses how the decolonized evade self-criticism and self-correction, offering their history and suffering as excuses for their current state; and Memmi argues for intellectual responsibility. Of course, much of our response to difference is instinctive rather than intellectual – and that is the problem.

In Philadelphia, when pressed for the origin of his morality, Charles Wheeler refers to religious text – old teachings to which allegiance is still paid, despite the resources of science (The magazine Yale Scientific reports that homosexuality has been found in 450 animals species, March 14, 2012; accessed online November 2014 – so much for the argument against homosexuality based on nature).

1097788553When near the close of the film Philadelphia, Joe Miller visits Andrew Beckett in the hospital to celebrate the verdict in the legal case, Andrew takes his hospital mask from his face but a few minutes later he has difficulty putting it back – and the black male heterosexual Joe helps Andrew, touching Andrew’s face, no longer afraid of the white gay man with a fatal, infectious disease. “In revealing the insidiousness of abuse against persons with AIDS, Denzel Washington’s performance is a tour de force. As he gradually changes his attitudes and overcomes his fears, he shows how easy it is for prejudice to taint even the most reasonable persons. Although Joe doesn’t completely succeed in eradicating his homophobia, he does deeply respect Andrew’s valiant fight for life and his attempt to die with dignity and grace,” wrote Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of the film at the online Spirituality & Practice (accessed November 2014).

phil02Denzel Washington’s mastery cannot be a surprise to anyone who has watched him for even a short time. His intelligence, talent, and taste, as well as luck, have brought him to some good films: A Soldier’s Story (1984), Cry Freedom (1987), Glory (1989), Mississippi Masala (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and many others. Washington directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007), two films that contribute to an African-American cinema canon of value; a canon that can be glimpsed in books such as Mark Reid’s Black Lenses, Black Voices (2005), and Manthia Diawara’s Black American Cinema (1993), Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness (1993), and Mia Mask’s Contemporary Black American Cinema (2012), as well as in the greatly enriching Screenplays of the African-American Experience, a collection of scripts for independent films made between 1973 and 1989, edited by Phyllis Rauch Klotman and published by Indiana University Press in 1991, featuring films such as Ganja and Hess by Bill Gunn, Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett, and Losing Ground by Kathleen Collins.[1] Denzel Washington, like Kathleen Collins, is an exemplar of a canon that is growing; and I do not doubt that when more is written about significant American and African-American film, Denzel Washington will be featured with appreciation and respect. Washington challenges his heroic ideal in Philadelphia by playing a very capable man with limited social vision, a man who moves beyond his anxieties and fears, disgust and rage.

In Sight & Sound, Stella Bruzzi commended Philadelphia for presenting the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) as a series of declines (March 1994); and, in the January 14, 1994 Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel had observed that “Demme regularly features close-ups of AIDS-related lesions on lawyer Tom Hanks’ head and body […]. This is the distinguishing strength of Philadelphia, and its value should not be underestimated. This is as close as a mass audience may get to an AIDS victim,” whereas Roy Grundmann and Peter Sacks had thought the film failed to present a sexual Andrew Beckett, a vibrant gay community, or the specificities of the disease (Cineaste, Summer 1993). People look at the same object; and see different things – perspectives and opinions vary.

Do we judge fairly? Love is inspired, and respect earned. It is possible for people of power and privilege to assume that virtue comes with those attributes but that is not true – though there are responsibilities that, if handled properly (intelligent, justly), can confirm one’s virtue. It is possible for people who are wounded to think that their wounds entitle them to love and respect, but that is not true. It is possible for people who are wounded to think that their wounds give them permission to ignore laws and rules and behave badly, but that is not true. Love is inspired, and respect earned: and that is what one understands watching two very different men, two excellent lawyers, work together in Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia, which explores justice in America as it relates to love, sex, illness, and work. Love is inspired and respect earned: a simple but significant thought – one that relates to us all. Artists and intellectuals used to attempt master statements, or even major statements, about their subjects, presenting subjects with a kind of circular observation, in depth – one walked around the subject, seeing its details and dimensions, and bored beyond its surface into its core. Observers could see complexities and contradictions – and their reconciliation. Yet, we have become more used to the fragmentation of subjects, of the world, reconciled to incomplete descriptions and explanations. Jonathan Demme in Philadelphia has not attempted to define homosexuality or the acquired immune deficiency syndrome; rather, he has looked at prejudice against men who desire men, and prejudice against men with the immune system illness. Jonathan Demme asks, How much liberty do we give our prejudices, rather than our citizens? Jonathan Demme brings it all together – he brings us all together.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

[1] Kathleen Conwell Collins Prettyman: “Kathleen Conwell was the name she grew up with, the daughter of a father who was a principal and a state legislator. The other names came to her through marriage. Kathleen, a student of philosophy at Skidmore and of French literature at the Middlebury graduate school in France, and a production staffer at the Public Broadcasting Service and a City College film professor, made The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980) with Ronald Gray – Gray coproduced Losing Ground with Kathleen Collins and was Losing Ground’s cinematographer, although Collins did act as a camera assistant on Losing Ground,” I wrote introducing Collins in the original draft of a review-essay on the book Screenplays, the final essay published by Film International 68, Vol. 12, No. 2/2014.) Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground presents a rare portrait of an African-American woman philosopher (married to a fine art painter), an admired teacher who undergoes a crisis involving creativity and change, feeling and fidelity; and Collins broke new ground later tilled by Ayoka Chenzira (Alma’s Rainbow, 1992), Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the IRT, 1993) Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, 1997), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, 2000), Sanna Hamri (Something New, 2006) and other directors offering characters and stories of imagination and integrity.

Leave a Reply