Last week, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that federal employment discrimination law, Title VII, protects gay and transgender employees. It’s a historic ruling — one long overdue! — and Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion. And it’s even sweeter for this ruling to come during Pride Month. You can read more about the decision here on the SCOTUS blog. We still have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, but this moment is one to savor.
It also got me thinking about the 1993 film, Philadelphia, which earned Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar for portraying Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who gets fired from his law firm after his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis are discovered by his law partners. With the help of lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), Beckett sues his law firm for wrongful dismissal. This film was released 27 years ago — repeat, 27! YEARS! AGO! — and only now, in 2020, would Beckett be recognized under Title VII protections.
Here is a trailer for the film, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. The movie is available to rent via Amazon Prime.
Law library scene
At first, Miller does not want to help represent Beckett, so Beckett has to start researching on his own. And that leads us to a pivotal scene at a law library, which comes in at about a quarter of the way through the film. Beckett is researching materials in a law library, and Miller is at a nearby table.
A reel librarian, played by Tracey Walter, approaches Beckett with a book on AIDS discrimination he has found for him. The librarian, who is white and male, looks to be in his 40s, with thin, balding hair. He is conservatively dressed, in a sweater, tie, and button-front shirt, and he is not wearing glasses. Beckett thanks him for the book, but the librarian does not leave.
Let’s listen in:
Librarian: We do have a private research room available.
Beckett: I’m fine right here, thank you.
Another patron then approaches the table and asks the librarian for help finding a case. The librarian tells him, “Just a moment, I’ll be right with you.” He then turns back to Beckett, sighs heavily, wipes his chin, and then leans in slightly in order to place his hand on the library table.
Librarian: Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a research room?
Beckett [looks around and coughs]: No. Would it make you more comfortable?
Miller then gathers his stuff and walks over to Beckett.
Miller: Beckett, how you doing?
Beckett: Counselor. Huh.
Beckett then stares back at the librarian, who then looks up at Miller. Miller stares down the librarian and, in a gesture of challenge, nods his head. The librarian then drops his eyes to Beckett.
Librarian (to Beckett): Whatever, sir.
The librarian turns to leave, and then so does the other patron sitting at Beckett’s table. Miller stays to review the material that Beckett has gathered, and he decides to take the case.
The scene lasts two minutes and was filmed at the Fisher Fine Arts Library, in the Furness Building on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. As it’s a pivotal scene — one that sets up the rest of the film — and the librarian makes an (unfortunately) memorable impression, this film and librarian portrayal land in the Class III category, films in which the librarian(s) plays a secondary role, including a minor character in a memorable or significant scene.
You can watch the entire library scene here in this YouTube video:
Assessing this library scene and its significance
This scene is awkward, and purposefully so. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this scene, but a whole lot of long stares, silence, and sub-text that speak volumes in-between the gaps of spoken text. The camera angles also shift, reflecting each person’s perspective. I want to break down what I imagine is happening with each major character in this scene: the law librarian, Miller, and Beckett. Full disclosure: I am writing from the perspective of a White, cisgender, heterosexual woman, so my perspectives are limited. If you have alternative, different, and/or more nuanced ideas of what’s happening in this scene, please leave a comment and share!
Law librarian (Tracey Walter):
What is going on in this reel librarian’s head as he decides to keep standing and asking Beckett if he wants a private room? He’s clearly connected the dots between the request for an AIDS discrimination case and Beckett, who is visibly pale, with watery eyes and a cap to cover what is presumably a bald head. The librarian believes Beckett himself has AIDS. Therefore, I can imagine he is rationalizing to himself that he is being kind to this patron, by framing his recommendation as a question (“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable…?”) rather than as a command. I can also imagine that he is rationalizing to himself that he is protecting other patrons from this person who has AIDS. These kinds of rationalizations reflect the time period and the uninformed attitudes about AIDS, but they are not excuses for discrimination.
I wonder what’s going on in this reel librarian’s head as he processes the collective stare-downs from Beckett and Miller. Who has the power in this situation at the beginning, and does that shift during this scene? I think the librarian is weighing his options and ultimately decides that it’s not worth his effort to continue trying to hassle Beckett into a private room, because (a) he’s outnumbered, and (b) he doesn’t want to call attention to himself and also be accused of racism — although when it was just homophobia, he was fine with it — because it’s clear Miller, a Black man, is a lawyer and supports Beckett. In that moment, the power shifts from the librarian to Miller and Beckett, and it’s all done through stare-downs and sub-text.
The librarian also tries to have the last word in this low-key stand-off, but it’s weak: “Whatever, sir.” He also sighs and shrugs as he turns away. It’s clear that he hasn’t learned any positive lesson from this interaction.
The camera angles used in this scene also make the audience feel like we’re in Beckett’s position, too, and that we’re being looked down on by the librarian.
Joe Miller (Denzel Washington):
At the beginning of this scene, Miller stops chewing, and his entire body gets very still. He recognizes the librarian’s discrimination even before Beckett does.
After overhearing the librarian recommending a private room, he pushes his stack of books in front of him. Why? To disassociate himself from the situation? To assess the situation without being spotted himself? To deflect any other discrimination the librarian may be tempted to dish out? To see and assess how Beckett handles himself in that situation?
When he overhears Beckett standing up to the librarian, that’s when Miller’s face shifts and changes. That’s when he stands up and joins Beckett. Miller, a Black man, faces discrimination due to the color of his skin. Beckett is facing discrimination due to his sexuality and AIDS status. Together, they are stronger.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks):
Beckett seems to be taken aback at first by the librarian’s reaction. Beckett thanks the librarian warmly at the beginning of the scene for the book he requested, and then he settles back into working. But he quickly reassesses the situation when the librarian will not leave.
He does not allow the librarian to put the onus on him regarding the private room. Instead, Beckett redirects the librarian’s question back onto the librarian: “Would it make you [the librarian] more comfortable?” He’s not going to play this game that the librarian is trying to play. He is calling out the librarian and his real motives.
Beckett also ensures the librarian knows that Miller is a lawyer. When Miller comes over, Beckett pauses before referring to him as “Counselor.” Such a smart move! This signals to the librarian that he’s up against two lawyers, and he, the law librarian, is not going to win this fight today.
Why this scene matters
It is a small battle, sure, but this is no ordinary fight — this is a battle of wills, a battle against discrimination. This scene sets up an everyday kind of discrimination, in perhaps the least likely place: a law library. Libraries are usually viewed as safe, quiet spaces. But even in a so-called “safe” space, biases and discrimination and micro-aggressions lurk. And it’s important to show to the audience that neither Beckett nor Miller will allow this small act of discrimination to go unchallenged. If the audience can understand and buy into the fact that this librarian was wrong in this small act of discrimination, then they can understand that the bigger acts of discrimination, like being fired, are wrong, too. It is a pivotal moment in the film, and this film reflected a pivotal moment at that time, when we needed mainstream films that humanized gay men, that exposed the everyday discrimination that LGBTQ+ persons faced (and continue to face), and pushed back against the baseless fears that people at that time had about AIDS and homosexuality.
It is not like we’re post-discrimination today — we are in the streets protesting against discrimination right now — but films and moments like these are important in broadening the message of inclusivity and exposing the ripple effects of discrimination and micro-aggressions.
I wrote this in the post I wrote for the I Love Libraries blog last month:
This statement is applicable here, too. The reel librarian in Philadelphia (1993) is demonstrating anti-LGBTQ+ bias. Plain and simple — and oh-so-devastating. He reflects society at large in this moment. As such, he serves as Information Provider. He is providing information to the audience that LGBTQ+ discrimination can, and does, happen anywhere. Even in a library. Even from a librarian. It is a sad and uncomfortable truth that librarians can be as discriminatory as anyone else, which is especially disheartening because our job is to help people.
This month, our country is better for expanding employment rights and protections to gay and transgendered people. But we cannot cease fighting for progress, equality, and equity. And we cannot shy away from our own failings, reel and real, past and present.
- “The Fisher Fine Arts Library: Iconic Buildings List.” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, 21 Jan. 2020.
- Philadelphia. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, Antonio Banderas, Mary Steenburgen. TriStar, 1993.
- “Philadelphia (film)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) About Librarians.” I Love Libraries, 26 May 2020.
2 thoughts on “Law librarian failure in ‘Philadelphia’ (1993)”