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