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Philadelphia AIDS activists remember the importance of Jonathan Demme and his landmark movie

Philadelphia's LGBT community talks about the legacy of 'Philadelphia,' the first mainstream Hollywood movie to take on the subject of AIDS.

As Hollywood's first mainstream take on HIV back in 1993, Philadelphia was hotly debated —attacked by some LGBT activists for purported stereotypes, praised by others for its willingness to tackle a taboo subject.

Jonathan Demme, who directed the film, died Wednesday from esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease. Demme was well-known to activists and members of the LGBT community, who say the movie is just as important now as it was back then.

"Wherever I go, whether I'm traveling around Pennsylvania or around the world, when I tell people what I do, they say. 'Like the movie Philadelphia.' And I say, 'Exactly.' Everyone gets it. With one word, people understand," said Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which provides legal services to people living with HIV. "The struggles facing people with HIV — how hard it is to get justice, what it means to be living with HIV, what it means to have a change in your point of view about HIV — [the movie] really crystallizes all those issues."

Philadelphia starred Tom Hanks as a lawyer who suspects he was fired for having HIV, and Denzel Washington as the initially homophobic lawyer who represents him and comes to change his views about AIDS during the course of the trial.

"It's about discrimination, the kinds of legal challenges you face when you know you've been treated unfairly. You were good at your job and all of a sudden the rug has been pulled out from under you. You think: I know this is wrong, how do I handle it?" Goldfein said.

She had a personal connection to Demme, who agreed to speak at an AIDS Law Project fund-raiser in Philadelphia a few years ago. He came at his own expense, she said, and spoke candidly and at length about his reasons for making the movie, in part to come to terms with his own  fears about HIV. Demme hired 60 people with HIV to work on the film.

When released in 1993, the movie was criticized by some prominent activists. Larry Kramer found it too chaste, too focused on heterosexual characters, and unconvincing in its portrayal of gay men, writing that it "doesn't have anything to do with the AIDS I know, or with the gay world I know."

Kevin Burns, executive director of AIDS Wellness (then known as Action AIDS), found the movie all too real.

"I was aware of some of the criticisms out there. But for us, in very real ways it documented our pain, and also documented the fact that there was a community that came together to support people living with HIV," he said. "It was a difficult movie to watch. It reflected the reality of what many were living with every day. That was a really hard time. Clients we were working with were dying."

He didn't mind the movie's attention to heterosexual characters — particularly the way Washington's character makes the journey from biased and irrational to informed and compassionate.

"The transition that he went through from being AIDS-phobic when he started working with Hanks to coming to a place where he had a better understanding of the situation, I think that was what a lot of people were going through at the time – from dealing with a lot of misinformation to being informed and really supportive. I think he did a terrific job," he said.

In Los Angeles, Outfest gave Hanks its Legacy Award in 2015. He spoke about the reaction to the movie at the time of its release.

"One-third hated it. One-third dismissed it with a 'thank you very much.' And one-third applauded it. That was a formula that might have prompted the audience to go see it and judge for themselves," he said. "Perhaps seeing the film through the eyes of 2015 reveals a truth about those times, about our history, about our nation, and about ourselves. It turns out that we all know someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, and there is an excellent chance that we love them exactly as they are."

Said Goldfein: "That movie caused people in the heartland to think more kindly about people with HIV. And that's good enough for me."