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20th anniversary of 'Philadelphia' a time for reflection

Tom Hanks
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the movie “Philadelphia” was released to a pubic apprehensive about HIV and AIDS in an attempt to change the public narrative. Twenty years later, it seems that “Philadelphia” has accomplished its goal.

Originally released in 1993, “Philadelphia” stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and was directed by Jonathan Demme. The film enjoyed both critical and box office success, winning two Oscars.

Successful lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is unjustly fired from his firm because he has AIDS. The only person that will take on his wrongful termination case is homophobic lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington).

Made at a time when there was painfully little known about HIV and AIDS, the lack of information limited treatment options, and often led to both irrational fears and homophobia.

The inspiration behind “Philadelphia" was to end the trend of disinformation and encourage research for a cure. Director Jonathan Demme also employed several crew members and extras who were both Philadelphia natives and HIV positive. Demme said, “I wanted very much to employ people with AIDS as extras or any other aspect because it was very hard for people with AIDS to gets jobs and what have you “.

Fast forward twenty years, and significant progress can be seen. Just ask Suellen Kehler, who was an extra in “Philadelphia”, and is living with HIV. Kehler is thought to be the only HIV positive individual who worked on “Philadelphia” who is still alive today. She says, “If I want to be around another 20 years, I need to make sure these pills go down…because my friends didn’t make it so these pills are something that they wish they could have made it for.”

Although progress has been made, there is still much work to be done. While treatment and prevention have seen improvements, there are still about 50,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. per year, and stigmas and misinformation about the disease still exist today. When first released, many viewed “Philadelphia” as a launching point for change. Re-watching “Philadelphia” is a great way to reflect on the progress made, while dedicating oneself to the changes that still need to come.