The 1993 film Philadelphia1 manipulated middle America’s understanding of AIDS in some very effective ways. It tells the story of two lawyers: Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a gay white man with AIDS who has been fired from an elite law firm, and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an African American attorney and classic ambulance chaser who reluctantly represents Beckett in a discrimination suit against his employer. Despite the criticisms that can be leveled at the film, it accomplished, in Paula Treichler’s words, “important cultural work.”2 For many audience members, the film challenged blatant myths and misconceptions regarding AIDS and homosexuality. As the story unfolds, it cleverly invites the audience to identify with homo- and AIDS–phobic characters, and then, by providing all the right tidbits of information, ushers us along the path to enlightenment. By the time Beckett wins his lawsuit and dies, viewers have been provided with a short course in AIDS facts: HIV is not transmitted through casual contact; not all gay men have AIDS; not all people with AIDS are gay men; gay men and people with AIDS have families who love and support them; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or HIV serostatus are frequently indistinguishable; not all gay men fit the effeminate stereotype.
KeywordsPrison Inmate Legal Discourse Critical Race Theory Legal Language Case Opinion
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