Fighting for years: Iconic film ‘Philadelphia’ celebrates 25 years, and its last HIV positive extra

More than 50 people with HIV/AIDS were cast from the local health network ActionAIDS, now branded Action Wellness, as extras in the groundbreaking 1993 film Philadelphia. Today, only one survives.Sue Kehler, 54.

More than 50 people with HIV/AIDS were cast from the local health network ActionAIDS, now branded Action Wellness, as extras in the groundbreaking 1993 film Philadelphia. Today, only one survives.

Sue Kehler, 54.

“I am so happy to be alive, but I have survivor’s guilt,” revealed Kehler, who made a pact with a few of the extras they would all live to be treated with the cure for HIV/AIDS, a discovery still not found. “I ask myself ‘Why me?…Why just me?’”

Kehler was a special guest at the Philadelphia Film Center on Nov. 26 for its 25th anniversary celebration of Philadelphia and the screening of a new short documentary The Last Mile. Presented by (RED) and The Coca-Cola Company, and in recognition of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, The Last Mile bridges the American story’s fight against HIV/AIDS through the lens of Philadelphia with the ongoing crisis in Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.

Back in the ‘90s, Philadelphia made headway for being one of the first Hollywood films to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic, homosexuality and homophobia. Centering on a HIV-positive, gay lawyer who sues his former law firm for wrongful termination, Philadelphia is also largely remembered for its all-star cast, none of whom were present at the event. The bill included Tom Hanks, who earned one of the two Oscars the film received, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen.

But behind the big names were people like Kehler, the real victims of the highly stigmatized and deadly condition, which is now manageable with modern medication.

Kehler recalled the excitement and camaraderie among those infected with the virus on the set of Philadelphia. She particularly remembers Hanks saying he would play a part in the movie based off the book she was and still is writing, a project delayed due to her symptomatic and debilitating joint pain.

But even with the good memories of working on the film set, the time is still plagued with death and discrimination. Against the wishes of many in her family, Kehler announced her HIV-positive status by way of taking on the role in Philadelphia. Subsequently, a coworker at the bank Kehler worked at had her desk moved, fearing she would catch the illness. Even last year, Kheler said she experienced the same type of bigotry and ignorance when a friend yelled at her child after trying to drink from Kehler’s cup at dinner. Kheler said her friend was clearly worried that her child could “catch” the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) through saliva − which is false.

In an abusive relationship with a man who was an IV drug user, Kehler contracted HIV when she was just 22. She eventually found out her diagnosis when showing symptoms while pregnant with a baby girl who would be stillborn.

“They did test after test, all tests were negative. Finally, they said they were going to do a test for HIV to rule it out,” said Kehler, who was unaware of her partner’s past drug use. “The results came back, and a family physician at the time said … ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, and I am so sorry but your tests came back positive for the AIDS virus.’”

From the upper-middle class suburbs of Lower Merion, Kehler’s “world was turned upside down” and irrevocably changed.  

“I didn’t even know what that meant other than that I had less than a month to live,” explained Kehler.

But she did live. Now residing in the Northeast, Kehler is one of the approximate 18,976 people living with HIV in Philadelphia, according to AIDSVu. Based on 2017 reports, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists Pennsylvania as one of the top 10 states for new HIV cases.

“We have obviously come a long way, in terms of what Tom Hanks’ character [in Philadelphia] lived through and ended up dying of HIV,” reflected Kevin Burns, executive director of Action Wellness. “That’s no longer the case or no longer needs to be the case. The big challenge that we face is getting people to be tested, to know their status, to get treatment if they need it and to stay connected with treatment.”

Burns was one of the panelists during Philadelphia’s 25th anniversary event, which also included Director of Partnerships at (RED) Meaghan Condon and The Last Mile director Kim Snyder, and was moderated by actor Keiynan Lonsdale. The conversation among panelists centered strongly on The Last Mile, which follows the story of Veronica Martins José, a health worker in the Zambezia Province in Mozambique who brings medicines to those infected with malaria and HIV/AIDS. Clips of Philadelphia and associated commentary from the film’s stars and writer Ron Nyswaner are interspersed throughout the featurette.

“When Coke approached us with this idea, it felt like a no-brainer for us to pursue it,” said Condon of (RED), a nonprofit that partners with brands to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. “[Philadelphia] showed audiences that we are not so different after all, whether you are gay or straight, positive or negative, we all have the right to a healthy, happy life. It was bridging that Philadelphia story to some of the work that we are doing today, in places like Mozambique.”

Needless to say, using the success of Philadelphia as a way to highlight the ongoing devastation in Africa where approximately 1 million people die from AIDS-related illnesses each year was no easy task.

“It was really challenging, commemorating the past of this incredible film 25 years later, Philadelphia, and looking at how far we’ve come and looking at how much work still needs to be done,” said director Snyder, known for her 2016 documentary Newtown about the 2012 mass shooting that killed 20 elementary school children and six educators. “Finding this incredible, modern-day story in the far reaches of Africa, it is very different than the Philadelphia story. But in some ways, they share the a sense of self-empowerment.”

To watch The Last Mile, go to red.org/cocacola.

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