The 1993 film, Philadelphia, arrived in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, during a time when a distinct lack of education about the disease only exacerbated the crisis. It can't be overstated how devastating the lack of communication and education about the AIDS crisis was in the 1970s and 1980s. Irrational fear and suspicion pervaded American culture at every mention of HIV or AIDS.
Roger Ebert said it best in the opening to his review of the film: "More than a decade after AIDS was first identified as a disease, 'Philadelphia' marks the first time Hollywood has risked a big-budget film on the subject." He continues to applaud the film's bravery and stealthy progressiveness by saying that "for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease. It's a ground-breaker like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), the first major film about an interracial romance; it uses the chemistry of popular stars in a reliable genre to sidestep what looks like controversy."
Yep. All it took was the charming Trojan Horse of two of our generations greatest and most beloved actors to spread the message. Tom Hanks took on the role of an AIDS patient who believes he was wrongly terminated as a result of his diagnosis and Denzel Washington portrayed his homophobic lawyer, the only person willing to take the case. Philadelphia, aside from winning two Oscars and making more than $100 million at the box office, also brought newfound awareness to the disease and humanity to those suffering from it.
More than two decades later, film and culture experts believe the film literally changed the national conversation about HIV-AIDS. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme expressed a gladness to "see that AIDS doesn't bear really remotely the stigma which was quite overwhelming at the time, that it did 20 years ago."
HIV patient, Raphael Alvarez, 25, agreed the film made a major impact on the public's understanding of the epidemic. "It definitely put in perspective why we have to fight and change," Alvarez said. "The work we've done, we have changed HIV. We genuinely have done that. Healthcare has changed it. But there's so much work to be done. And that's what it [the movie] has affirmed for me."