A 2021 Look at 1993’s Groundbreaking Film Philadelphia: What Can We Learn About Empathy?

black and white box on green textile

With a gala this past Saturday evening to celebrate today’s grand opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, glamour is in the air, on the red carpet, and in my dreams. Because, let’s be honest — while the fact that I work from home 90% of the time means that every day in the office feels like a red carpet event, glamour is not even a close relative these days. Before we jump into a critical look at Philadelphia, I’m going to gift you with some absolutely un-expert wisdom on being glamorous in the time of telehealth.


  • Every look is an homage to the mullet. Business in front (top?), and naptime in the back (bottom?). Don’t be ashamed — as long as you’re being intentional with your half-and-half look, then it’s a power move, not a cop-out.
  • While there is no substitute for in-person connection, there is also no real-world substitute for the ease of looking fly via Zoom filter rather than full-face makeup. Sorry, world. While I will for sure click a Zoom filter to get that dewy fresh look, I am also confident enough in my nearing middle-age skin that I am happy to share my adult acne scars and overly sun-baked freckles with you au naturel.
  • The soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia is as starkly moving in 2021 as it was in 1993, which is important because you absolutely should not listen to it while attempting to paint your face into a real-world Zoom filter effect. Do not wear mascara and watch this film or even just listen to the soundtrack at the office. You’ve been warned. 

All jokes aside, we’re discussing a decades-old movie, Philadelphia, on the eve of the Academy’s momentous occasion because: 

  • This film played a significant role in my own personal development, especially those elements of my character that contribute significantly to how I see myself and the world
  • This film demonstrates the stark differences in those of us who grew up in the then era of LGBTQIA+ allyship and now. 
  • This film teaches us some important lessons in building empathy, including that intentional exercises in connecting with others don’t have to be perfect to be meaningful and impactful. So don’t be afraid to try.

A quick note: I do refer to some people’s use of potentially offensive ideas about LGBTQIA+ folks in this post, and I tried to do so respectfully in a way that acknowledges the impact of veiled homophobia without being injurious myself; however, if you think I’ve missed the mark and you’ve got the emotional labor to spare, I would love an email at kelley@thefeelingshealers.com letting me know how you think I could better have addressed these points. 

So, here’s the question that got this brain train rolling. I’m wondering how this film positively impacted cisgender heterosexual folks like me, who watched this film in our crucial, formative years, or those who were already adults at the time of its release. I’m also wondering if it might have even stunted us a little in authentic allyship by giving us room to accept a certain kind of queer reality. Could a great, progressive, and even groundbreaking film for its time have contributed significantly to seemingly well-meaning misconceptions about queerness, monogamy, and HIV? Did Philadelphia give us a pass when it came to examining whether we REALLY were cool with our gay friends? Here are things I heard some of the most self-proclaimed “gay-OK” folks I knew in the 90s say:

  • “I don’t care who you’re with! I just don’t need to see it.”
  • “Do you have to talk so gay?”
  • “My mom loves my gay friends! And she doesn’t care about letting gay guys stay over, but she won’t let girls spend the night anymore ‘just in case.’”
  • “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” 


OK, so let’s jump in.

The story:

Philadelphia follows Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a lawyer at a prestigious firm in, of course, Philadelphia. As the movie develops, we learn that Beckett has been presumably wrongfully terminated because of his HIV-positive status. Beckett hires an ambulance-chaser type lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, with severe bias against gay men, who happens to just be the only willing lawyer in all the city to take on the law firm as Beckett sues them for discrimination.

Beckett wears a wedding band, but Antonio Banderas falls mostly into the background as Beckett’s partner (I don’t say spouse because they would not have been legally wedded in 1993). As a person who finds Banderas to be quite aesthetically pleasing, I feel compelled to point out that his falling into the background of any film speaks to the true power and momentum of this film. Just sayin’.  As an amateur opera lover, I think it’s also possible Maria Callas is the star of this film. There’s this absolutely gut-wrenching, moving scene with Hanks as a whirling dervish in the throes of Callas’ singing La Mamma Morta. Yes, it’s over the top, but it makes me cry every damn time. 

As a middle-schooler watching this movie for the first time, I wept. Now, I still weep, but I recognize that this film must also be left, in ways, to serve its purpose as a quarter-of-a-century old relic in favor of more fleshed-out, inclusive media. Does that mean we can’t learn from it, though?

The real lesson is: don’t let a single story become your truth.

Here’s what the film does right: 

Philadelphia shows gay men in a positive light in a manner never done in mainstream media with film darlings such of the caliber of Tom Hanks and the ever-masc Denzel Washington. Throw in heartthrob Antonio Banderas, and you have…another Tom Hanks movie that women love. Actually, that’s sort of the problem, too. The very components that make this mainstream film a meaningful vehicle to connect with heavily stigmatized populations — gay men and people living with AIDS/HIV — make it almost too bland to truly scratch the surface of the problem.

But, look, the blandness is what makes Philadelphia palatable. It’s not an AIDS movie about gay men for gay men or people living with HIV/AIDS. It’s a movie for your living room, to ease you into seeing people unlike you as a little less than other — and that’s such an important job. That’s how we empathize, folks! But that’s not the real lesson of Philadelphia or any other film that will be heralded in the new Academy Museum, etched even deeper into our collective consciousness.

Outside of the narrative arc, the film was freaking groundbreaking. Did I say that already? I mean, we are talking about a mere decade after the AIDS epidemic gave rise to the official medical term term GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). In his acceptance speech at the 1994 Oscars, Hanks thanked “two of the finest gay Americans,” Hanks’ drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and one of his classmates, John Gilkerson, who died from AIDS in 1989. Honestly, that sounds a little cringy now, but it’s pretty damn progressive for a male darling-of-American-cinema to publicly show his support and admiration for two gay men while not in character. 

And let’s not pretend that we’ve landed where we need to be. Only this past week did the White House announce that service members discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will be able to access veterans’ benefits for the very first time, 10 years after its repeal. How much damage has already been done to those with the stain of a dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharge on their record, let alone the lack of access to care? 

So let’s not be too easy on the film, but let’s also give it — and our collective selves — a safe space to be critical without casting blame or shame for perhaps not measuring up to an ideal.

Here’s where we need to use our 2021 critical eye:

This film absolutely shattered a few walls. But, Philadelphia does heavily rely on classist, heteronormative stereotypes to shatter them. Beckett’s plights are sympathetic because he’s White, educated, wealthy, and — presumably — in a loving, monogamous relationship. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a character who is so quiet and so gentle that he almost has no personality at all. 

I’d like to imagine that was done to make Beckett seem an everyman, but the result is perhaps to make the gay man dying of AIDS less threatening, if no less stereotypical. The film does an admirable job of sneaking in great moments, with cameos from larger-than-life figures of the LGBTQ+ scene of the 1980s and 1990s as well as the casting of more than 50 PLHIV/AIDS (people living with HIV/AIDS), but it somehow also propels certain stereotypes about sexual behavior and the homophobia of Black men while trying to negate them. 

Books like Gay New York and The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket don’t shy away from the gay male queerness both celebrated and criticized in much media. Instead, they present an assets-based perspective of the frequent promiscuity, recreational drug use, and party lifestyle that, for many gay men, was the shining light in an otherwise dark world that saw them as sick. Where do you go when you can’t be you in the light of day, anyway? For this reason, some of the criticism of Philadelphia at the time of its release was that it was too safe, too clean, and too “heartbreakingly mediocre,” according to playwright and activist Larry Kramer.

Interestingly, Denzel Washington’s character, Joe Miller, was originally supposed to be the comic relief while Beckett was a more serious type. However, the automatic levity that Tom Hanks brings to every role resulted in the Miller role being cast opposite its initial Bill Murray-esque intentions in order to maintain the foil. It’s important to note this because, whether it was the initial intention or not, we can’t look at the relationship between Beckett and Miller from a colorblind lens. 

There is depth to the portrayal Black male attorney (who is, by all accounts, as unethical as they come) being forced to defend a White guy who, up to this point, has been about as superficially privileged as they come. It’s also important to note that even now, in 2021, the stigma against Black gay maleness, especially, is very, very real and very harmful, even in the face of apparently progessive moves.

Jimir Reece Davis AKA AMORPHOUS, whose eponymous versatility blew up with his mash-up of Rihanna and Luther Vandross, went into hyperdrive with creating content after he started experiencing bullying, in part because of his perceived sexuality, in seventh grade. Rice dives further into the challenges of being himself in any form in an interview with Houston Public Media’s Eddie Robinson that focuses on what it means to be “young, gifted, and gay” in hip hop. Want a bonus point? He hails from Philadelphia. See what I did there?

Rice’s very real awareness of how he exists in his cultural spaces does not mean he’s destined to be less successful because he’s gay, but Ramirez-Valles, Kuhns, and Manjarrez (2014) point out that bias against gay men — especially gay men of color, and people living with AIDS/HIV — remains high despite a seemingly egalitarian social construct. Decades of educational and cultural movements have done little to stymie even legal discrimination (hello, un-passed Equal Rights Acts). 

Philadelphia is, by all accounts, a protest film, if not a particularly aggressive one. I mean, Philadelphia was released only twenty years after homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder from the DSM. That’s not even a full generation’s worth of social shift, so if you’re not exactly right where you want to be in terms of allyship, neither is the rest of the world — but, remember, therapy is a form of protest, too, so you’re headed in the right direction just by reading a therapy blog! Pause to high five yourself.

Therapy is a form of protest.

Also, I did an informal research study, meaning I surveyed my closest gay male friends. Zero percent of them listen to opera, but according to actual researchers, opera as art form has long been a rich and powerful arena for gay men, so maybe that’s not such a bad stereotype to include. 

But here’s the thing. 

Back to the danger of safety on a large scale. The problem with allying ourselves with queerness or any other kind of other-than-us in safe ways is that life isn’t safe, and people are complex. On the one hand, you could argue that historically oppressed (and repressed) folks have, in many ways, earned their right to be loud — even though it can be really uncomfortable for some. But regardless of whether Larry Kramer’s view of early 90s queerness, in all its messiness and rawness, or the Philadelphia version is the one you believe to be true, the reality is: they both are. 

So, sure, Philadelphia deserves its accolades, but doesn’t the LGBTQ+ community deserve more authentic portrayals, especially now that we know better? And don’t we owe it to ourselves to step out of our comfort zone when it comes to learning about people with different stories than ours?

Tribalism is a human impulse, and there is so much power in deep human connection within our tribes, but if you’re not hunting and gathering, not stepping outside limited exposure to those unlike you leaves you only with a single, incomplete story. And that, as novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her ultra-famous TED Talk, is dangerous. While we may never completely understand people whose stories are so different from our own, it is important that we recognize the value they bring to this world, respect their right to have them, and even perhaps enrich our own experiences through them.

Tons of experts recognize that the world we live in today has a serious empathy deficit, but tons of experts also say empathy can be learned and even strengthened. At the end of the day, watching a “safe” film like Philadelphia isn’t a bad step. Check out our Instagram or Facebook page for some more tips on how you can intentionally build empathy practices into your daily life!

While I drop the mic — but hopefully not on my foot — drop your go-to LGBTQIA+ media faves in the comments below!


Ramirez-Valles, J., Kuhns, L., & Manjarrez, D. (2014). “Tal Como Somos/Just As We Are : An Educational Film to Reduce Stigma toward Gay and Bisexual Men, Transgender Individuals, and Persons Living With HIV/AIDS. “Journal of Health Communication, 19(4), 478–492. https://doi-org.libproxy.lamar.edu/10.1080/10810730.2013.821555

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