In 1993 I was 17 years old and in my last year of high school. While I didn’t have a strong idea as to what would be the focus of my collegiate career, I was certainly interested in the legal profession, at least from the standpoint of how it was dramatized in books, television shows, and movies. So when the movie “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington was released, it was a no-brainer that I would go see it. Aside from the basic plot point of Tom Hanks having AIDS and the lawsuit being brought against his employers for wrongful termination, not much else truly resonated with me at the time I saw the movie. I remember that I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie, but I think a lot of that was because despite being a movie portraying the legal profession, it wasn’t a “whodunit” or a thrilling courtroom drama. There was no smoking gun or dramatic cross-examination where the bad guy admitted his crime on the witness stand.
For the most part I think I felt uncomfortable by the subject matter and its portrayal. Remember that I was only 17 years old and there was still a lot about AIDS that was unknown, other than that Magic Johnson had it and even then it was unclear as to how he had contracted it. Straight people don’t contract AIDS, right?
I happened to catch the end of the movie on television just last week and I was compelled to watch it. As a candid admission, I don’t watch much television anymore. The shows I used to watch are no longer appointment television for me and unless it is the Dodger game or MLB network, I pretty much won’t turn the television on. But I happened to have the set on while folding up my clothes and I found myself glued to the screen for the final 15 minutes of the movie.
If you haven’t seen the movie or don’t recall it very well, in the last 15 minutes the senior partner of Tom Hanks’ character’s law firm is on the stand testifying while at the same time Hanks is visibly weakening at the plaintiff’s table, until he collapses on the floor of the courtroom, his condition exacting its final toll. The trial concludes and Hanks passes away a short time later. The final scene is the gathering after Hanks’ passing and footage of home movies of Hanks’ character as a young boy, his whole life ahead of him.
As I sat there watching the end of the movie and neglecting my socks and shirts, I couldn’t help but being moved. The movie has not changed in 19 years, but it is clear that I have and, even more impressively, our society has. Twenty years ago we didn’t know much about AIDS, but the belief was that if you had it, your time was short. Drugs like “AZT” were unproven and society was still confused as to how it was contracted. I remember being taught in junior high school health class that if you had a cut on your lip and you kissed someone who had AIDS who had a cut on their lip, you could contract AIDS. I think many of us had this image of invisible AIDS viruses jumping between open cuts on lips like radio waves. Many of us also believed that AIDS only affected same-sex couples and that so long as we weren’t in a same-sex relationship we were safe from infection.
I am cynical by nature. With the vast number of foundations and charities that exist and the millions and millions of dollars that are contributed to cancer research or AIDS research or the like, I have always questioned how the funds are being used if terrible diseases like breast cancer and AIDS are still affecting so many people. We have been seeing the red ribbons for decades (it seems) and yet the disease is still there; it isn’t eradicated yet.
We always ask what has been done lately; we so rarely have the ability to jump 20 years back and see just how much progress has actually been made. But if you are interested, take another look at “Philadelphia.” It is absolutely astonishing to see how far we have come in just a short 19 years. The millions of dollars that have been raised to combat this terrible disease has paid dividends on top of dividends. There is no cure yet, but it seems that so much more is understood about it and, more importantly, those people afflicted with it have so many more opportunities to live productive and fulfilling lives despite having the disease. If I had told you 20 years ago that Magic Johnson would own the Dodgers in 2012, you would have called me crazy. There seems no stopping him.
It’s the end of the Thanksgiving holiday and we have spent the last week, hopefully, thinking about what we are thankful for. While I don’t know anyone off-hand afflicted with AIDS, I certainly have known a fair share of family and friends who have been afflicted by some kind of devastating disease. And I must give a tremendous amount of thanks to all of the people who have donated, have studied, have researched and have contributed to the great strides that have been made in just the last 20 years.
Imagine how much more progress can be made in the next 20 years? Although I don’t see any reason to wait that long, if you catch my drift.
Have a great week.