Heaven’s Crowded Streets: Changing the AIDS Conversation


Written for my English 102 class on September 25, 2017, I had to pick a film that I believed helped society process and deal with an experience or idea, and write an argumentative piece about the impact it made. I chose one of my favorite movies, the 1993 film, Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. The film deals with the AIDS crisis in America, a subject that I am really passionate about. It is written in MLA 8 format, complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page.

I received a 95 on this assignment. My instructor enjoyed my essay. Her biggest problems were with paragraphs 2 and 3 following the Introduction. She said I relied too heavily on source material in those paragraphs. In hindsight, I agree, but what I was attempting to do was provide background information on the virus, and kind of set up the stage for the film to be discussed in later paragraphs. I’m still really proud of this essay.


Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young each wrote a song for the 1993 film, Philadelphia. In each song, a similar lyric is posed. In Streets of Philadelphia, Springsteen asks, “Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wastin’ away?”  Young states in the title track, “Don’t turn your back on me. I don’t want to be alone.” Unfortunately, their lyrics echo the thoughts and feelings of too many Americans in the 1980s and early 1990s. A virus was spreading across America, killing almost everyone who contracted it. People did not know much about the virus because the conversation surrounding it was minimal and negative. Americans were fearful, disgusted, and mostly disinterested, because the virus seemed to only affect gay Americans. The conversation surrounding the virus has changed significantly since the early 1990s. This change can be at least partly credited to Philadelphia.  By giving a character AIDS and allowing viewers to see how he was treated and viewed by society, Philadelphia caused society to self-reflect and put more time and attention into learning about the virus. The deuteragonist, Joe Miller, is representative of America in the early 1990s: he was fearful, disgusted, and uninformed about AIDS. The journey and transformation Joe goes through is prophetic to the journey and transformation America would go through in the years following the film’s release, but that journey was just the beginning. Conversation about AIDS needs to continue.

Anyone who might say that positive conversations about AIDS are unnecessary probably does not know or understand the history of the virus. He or she probably does not comprehend the devastation the virus has left across America in its wake, particularly in the gay community. The early 1980s were a scary time for gay Americans. Ronald Reagan had just recently won the White House. With his victory came a shift to social conservatism. Ostracized by society, gays were trying to find their place in a new America.  While they were battling social prejudices and injustices, a silent killer arose, seemingly targeting their community. Socially referred to as “the Gay Plague,” the virus was officially called GRID, which stood for Gay-related Immune Deficiency (Hillman 34). This is because initially, at least publicly, gays contracted the virus almost exclusively. Symptoms were almost immediate, and included fever, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, a sore throat, extreme fatigue, and skin ulcerations (Feldman and Miller xxv-xxvi). Most alarmingly, the virus killed. GRID was ruthless. In 1981, six months after the announcement of GRID, 270 cases had been reported by healthcare workers in America; of the 270 individuals diagnosed with GRID, 121 had died. The death rate would approach 100 percent (Hillman 30).

As more became known about the new virus and more and more cases were documented, GRID was renamed AIDS, largely because of objections from leaders in the gay community (38). It is not hard to imagine the social issues gays faced with this deadly virus being referred to as “gay-related.” AIDS, Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome, continued to spread and claim lives with a quickening pace. One case per day was being reported to the CDC in January of 1982; that number would climb to two and three cases being reported a day by midyear (44).  AIDS climbed “from 41 cases in 1981 to over 70 million today [2014],” according to Larry Kramer, a health advocate and LGBTQ activist (qtd. in Cannon). This was in part because of Regan’s reluctance to speak about the epidemic. President Reagan acknowledged the actor, Rock Hudson’s AIDS-related death publicly, but “would not utter the uncomfortable word ‘AIDS'” (Feldman and Miller 25). The discomfort and fear surrounding the word might be a reason that the virus spread so rampantly. One might argue that had AIDS been talked about sooner and more freely, more people would have been informed about the virus, and more lives would have been saved.  Initiating and fostering that conversation is what script-writer, Ron Nyswaner, and director, Jonathan Demme, set out to do when they began work on Philadelphia.

In 1993, when Philadelphia first came out, 200,000 Americans had died from AIDS (Gordon). It was still an uncomfortable topic in America, and many Americans still viewed it as a gay disease. In the documentary, People Like Us: Making Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme said that he and his team wanted to change how AIDS was looked at, and how people with AIDS were treated. That would involve reaching as many people as possible, and instructing them not only about AIDS, but about whom AIDS impacted. They hoped to dispel the stereotypes and fears surrounding the virus. “We got together and tried to come up with a movie that would help push for a cure and save lives,” said Jonathan Demme (qtd. in Gordon). “It was imperative we have a story with universal appeal” (People Like Us). They captured that appeal in several ways. The first was by securing household names like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to act in the film. Both actors were extremely passionate about the project and its goal. Denzel Washington read the script by chance on an airplane, and expressed strong interest in being in the film shortly after landing (People Like Us). That passion would hopefully resonate with viewers. Another way Nyswaner and Demme tried to recruit viewers was through the strong, relatable characters, Andrew Beckett and Joe Miller.

Andrew Beckett was brought to life by Tom Hanks. Before Philadelphia, Tom Hanks was known for films like Big and Sleepless in Seattle where he played relatable “everyman” kind of characters. Demme said there was a comfort with Hanks, “a humanity” (People Like Us). “He was someone everyone would want to know.” By becoming Andrew Beckett, Tom Hanks was essentially given AIDS in the eyes of viewers. If Tom Hanks could have AIDS, why could not the viewer, or someone close to the viewer? Watching Hanks struggle and eventually lose his life had to have made the AIDS epidemic real for viewers. “I think the movie was made for people who thought they didn’t know anyone who died of AIDS,” said Hanks, “And after the movie, they knew someone who died of AIDS” (People Like Us). Hanks’ charisma brought likeability to the character. The film made Andrew Beckett more relatable by showcasing his supporting, loving family. Andrew Beckett had a family that many Americans would hope to have. After inspiring viewers to relate to and care for Andrew Beckett, the film projected his virus onto viewers in a pivotal courtroom scene where Andrew was asked to remove his shirt, and state whether he could see lesions on his body in a mirror three feet away. The camera focused in on the mirror. The lesions could have been the viewer’s. Anyone could contract AIDS.

Near the beginning of the film, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, thought just that, but he did not understand how the virus was contracted. He visited his doctor for an AIDS test after shaking Andrew Beckett’s hand. This scene illustrates Joe Miller’s greatest flaws: his bigotry, his fear, and his ignorance. It is his journey that defines his character, however, and makes him memorable. In the Filmmaker’s Commentary, Demme said that they initially saw Joe Miller as a minor character. One of the producers had the idea to expand his role so that heterosexual males would have someone to identify with in the film and relate to very strongly. “We had a blast making his character as homophobic as possible. His journey… towards acceptance was all the more beautiful,” said Demme (Filmmakers’ Commentary). Joe Miller went from incredibly anti-gay and fearful to compassionate and understanding. Joe is welcomed with open arms by Andrew’s family in the hospital. He even attends a gay party with his wife. Joe’s progression culminates in a hospital scene near the end of the film where Joe not only touches Andrew’s face, but does so with passion and genuine concern for Andrew in his eyes. He went from seeing Andrew as an AIDS case to seeing Andrew as a person. This was the result of opening his mind to a new conversation, getting to know Andrew, and learning more about the virus.  It was not a seamless journey for Joe, nor an easy one. Denzel Washington said, “It’s difficult and painful to face up to your fears and your ignorance” (People Like Us). Joe Miller faced up to his. Viewers everywhere did the same.

Philadelphia was Hollywood’s first major exploration of AIDS. Marla Gold, a former assistant health commissioner and an HIV doctor said that Philadelphia was able to accomplish what many doctors could not: “fostering an accurate public awareness about the AIDS epidemic” (qtd. in Gordon). Since the film’s release, it has been easier to get AIDS medication, and fewer people are dying of AIDS (Gordon). AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. Demme said, “I’m glad to see that AIDS doesn’t bear really remotely the stigma… that it did 20 years ago” (qtd. in Gordon).

Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. In his acceptance speech, Hanks said, “The streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names.” America’s reaction to the film, and its determination to not only love and accept the people plagued with AIDS, but to find a cure, is responsible for those streets becoming less crowded. Yet, there are 50,000 new HIV infections a year in America (Gordon). Philadelphia changed the conversation, but that conversation is far from over.

Works Cited

Cannon, Carl M. “Ronald Regan and AIDS: Correcting the Record.” Real Clear Politics, 01 Jun. 2014, www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2014/06/01/ronald-regan-and-aids-correcting-the-record-122806.html.

Demme, Jonathan, director. Philadelphia. Performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, TriStar Pictures, 1993.

Feldman, Douglas and Julia Miller. The AIDS Crisis: A Documentary History. Greenwood Press, 1998.

“Filmmakers’ Commentary.” Commentary by Jonathan Demme and Ron Nyswaner. Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme, TriStar Pictures, 1993, disc 1.

Gordon, Elena. “Two Decades Ago, Tom Hanks and ‘Philadelphia’ Prompted Changing Attitudes Toward HIV-AIDS.” The Pulse, Newsworks, 20 Dec. 2013, www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/the-pulse/62963-20th-anniversary-of-philadelphia/.

Hillman, Bruce. A Plague On All Our Houses: Medical Intrigue, Hollywood, and The Discovery of AIDS. ForeEdge, 2017.

“Making of Featurette.” Commentary by Jonathan Demme, Ron Nyswaner, Tom Hanks, and Denzel Washington. Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme, TriStar Pictures, 1993, disc 2.

Oscars. “Tom Hanks Winning an Oscar for ‘Philadelphia.'” YouTube, 14 Mar. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBuDMEpUc8k.

“People Like Us: Making Philadelphia.” Commentary by Jonathan Demme, Ron Nyswaner, Tom Hanks, and Denzel Washington, TriStar Pictures, 1993, disc 2.

Springsteen, Bruce. “Streets of Philadelphia.” Philadelphia: Music From the Motion Picture, Epic Soundtrax, 1993.

Young, Neil. “Philadelphia.” Philadelphia: Music From the Motion Picture, Epic Soundtrax, 1993.