The Discrimination I Wrote About in Philadelphia Is Still With Us -- But HALSA Is Helping

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Thursday, January 21, Artists Give Back will host a benefit for HALSA, a major provider of free legal services in Los Angeles for people with HIV/AIDS. They are screening Philadelphia at the Landmark Theater and have asked me to be there.

It's been many years since I wrote the screenplay for the film that was directed by my friend and mentor, Jonathan Demme. Whenever I talk about the movie, or screen a scene for a class, or catch a moment of it on TV, I remember a time in my life that was filled with potent emotions, when my colleagues and I responded to a crisis by making a film about it. This crisis - the AIDS epidemic - was terrifying, infuriating, world-wide, and very personal. While we researched statistics about infection rates, and noted our government's fatally slow response, we spoke quietly about the people we knew and loved who were living with AIDS and, even as we shot the film, dying because of it. It was a time when every strand of my life - politics, career, family, faith - was woven into one effort. For several years after the film's release, I traveled around the country, speaking at high schools, colleges, even church conventions, about the discrimination faced by people with HIV/AIDS and the homophobia upon which it is based.

The film - though far from perfect - accomplished its purpose; it encouraged a dialogue among Americans about things many people didn't want to talk about. I can't count the number of times I was thanked by people who had been struggling with their secrets - positive HIV test results, or a closeted lifestyle - who said the film gave them the courage to "come out" - as a man with HIV, as a woman in a same-sex relationship. There were stories of reconciliations. One came to me via my agent, who was standing on line at a ski lift and heard a man behind him say: "My parents haven't spoken to me in eight years, but they watched Philadelphia last night. They called and asked if I'd come home." At an event in Washington, D.C., I was approached by a young, African-American woman who said she'd been terrified to tell her family she had HIV; she feared being rejected and forced to leave her home. But her family rented Philadelphia one night. As the end credits were rolling, and she noted the tears in the eyes of her parents and siblings, she blurted out, "I have that." She said there was a moment of terrifying silence and, then, various members of her family took her in their arms, held her, and told her they loved her. She said, "Your movie did that." If these stories mean anything, they prove that movies can be a powerful force that affects lives.

Our movie was criticized, at the time of its release, because it wasn't as "angry" as it should have been, avoided the politics that contributed to the epidemic, and was timid in its portrayal of a gay relationship. Guilty as charged. But we were pursuing a self-imposed mandate; namely, to play at the mall cineplex and compete for an audience against big-budget, Hollywood studio movies. We didn't want to "talk" to the people who already believed that AIDS was a serious problem and discrimination is wrong. What is the point of debate among like-minded people? I tell you what the "red state people" ought to believe and you agree with me. But who is changed by that conversation? And although stories about AIDS related discrimination have drifted to the back pages of newspapers, and many of us have moved on, to support other causes like same sex marriage, people with HIV/AIDS are still losing jobs and being denied health care and basic rights.

HALSA's lawyers, working pro bono, provide legal advice and services to people with HIV/AIDS, many of them from vulnerable minorities and facing discrimination on many levels. AIDS has not been cured and discrimination hasn't gone away, although no one's making movies about it these days. (By the way, Philadelphia would never be made today; it wouldn't pass muster with any major studio's marketing department.) HALSA's work goes on, changing and improving lives every day even though, for most of us, AIDS has fallen into the background as our attention has shifted.

But I still believe movies can change hearts and minds. Recently, I saw Avatar with a 14-year-old who has been a gung-ho supporter of the war in Iraq. As we left the theater, he said, "I have to re-think my whole opinion about the war and Arabs."