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December 2, 2008

Milk: All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating


Watching Milk, the first thing you notice is how much has changed in the last 30 years, and how much has not how much progress has been made, and how much hasn't.


The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, is a biopic of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, who was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, on Nov. 27, 1978 30 years to the day prior to the film's release. In all, Milk executes the biopic formula to near-perfection, buoyed by an amazing performance by Sean Penn in the title role, expert direction and modern-day political resonance that's hard to ignore.


We first see Milk as a shy, semi-closeted New Yorker, about to turn 40, who vows to do something to be proud of so he sets off for San Francisco (with his partner, played by James Franco), opens a camera shop on Castro Street and morphs into a role as one of those dreaded "community organizers." This entails not establishing Marxism or overthrowing the government, but rather getting the area's gay community to unite, defend their rights and even begin to strive for political power. He does this largely through his charm and charisma, along with an ever-present cast of misfits who find purpose in his cause.


It's hard to imagine a time when San Francisco wasn't known as the primary mecca of gay culture in the U.S., but the early '70s were a time when the city still had a great deal of pushback against the notion. This is personified by Dan White (Josh Brolin), a rival councilman by whose hand Milk and Moscone would eventually die.


We see Milk waging numerous campaigns, both for office and on specific issues, and the one that resonates most is the battle against a ballot initiative, Proposition 6, which would have banned gay teachers, or "anyone who supports them," from working in the state's schools.


Sure, the goalposts have moved quite a bit in 30 years, but the resemblance to 2008's Proposition 8 is uncanny the State of California voting on an issue integral to the dignity and humanity of gay and lesbian Americans, protesters in the streets and a result that left many, many people unhappy (it was the progressive side, oddly enough, that prevailed in 1978 but not 2008).


The parallels don't end there. We see opponents of the initiative debating whether to use the word "gay" in mailing literature, an argument that repeated itself, virtually word-for-word, on the anti-Prop. 8 side. And we see a group of moneyed, fat-cat homosexuals who never want to cause controversy or rock the boat. These men are recognizable as the antecedents of the Human Rights Campaign, often mocked by Andrew Sullivan for a similar philosophy.


What's most powerful in the film the moments in which Milk speaks to a crowd. "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you," he begins, based on the then-popular, still not entirely eliminated and ridiculous-as-ever notion that gays are out to "recruit" children. He reasons, at one point, that Californians oppose Prop. 6 by a margin of 2-1 if they know someone who is gay so he encourages all of his supporters to come out to their families, friends and co-workers.


It can be difficult to produce a convincing docudrama, especially filming in the same streets of the same city three decades later. But Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and cinematographer Harris Savides do a great job both nailing period detail and depicting the birth and rise of the city's Castro District. It's a vivid, brilliant description of a community that we know was ravaged, a very short time later, by the AIDS epidemic.


Milk is the second great film to be made about its subject, the first being 1984's The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It's a brilliant bringing-to-life of this fascinating American, and one of the year's best movies.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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