Sunday, February 15, 2009


Milk directed by Gus Van Sant (U.S., 2008) 128 minutes

This is the last of the big Oscar nominated films I wanted to see and I'm glad I didn't miss it. This is a piece of history that every politically conscious person should be exposed to. I had forgotten, or never fully understood, the importance of San Franciscan politician Harvey Milk (pictured here above) in terms of forwarding a human rights agenda for his city and the state of California. He was the first openly gay politician to be elected to the office of Supervisor in San Francisco and fought relentlessly for gay rights.

Milk is portrayed sympathetically and effectively by Sean Penn. Say what you will husband (who abhors Penn), he is a brave actor who often makes intriguing choices. Milk went from a laid back hippie in 1970 to one of the highest offices in San Francisco as Supervisor with enormous political clout. The self-named Mayor of Castro Street, the hub of gay life in the city, he rose after a succession of failed elections, year after year, to this position only to be killed the following year by Dan White, a fellow Supervisor, openly homophobic and probably closeted the movie implies. White had quit his position, was persuaded by certain right of centre elements to try and take back his job but was refused by the Mayor. White felt that Milk was behind this refusal.

Penn is surrounded by wonderful performances in supporting roles: Josh Brolin as the assassin Dan White; James Franco as Milk's lover/campaign manager Scott; Emile Hirsch as a charismatic rent boy Cleve Jones turned political activist; and, Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone who was also shot that fateful day in 1978.

In a few short years, Milk transformed himself from laid back hippie to businessman to politico able to galvanize thousands into political action. It's hard to fathom, but in my lifetime, cops were clubbing gay men in the streets for fictitious transgressions. Conservatives like the orange juice hawking Anita Bryant were actively campaigning against equal rights for gays and other prominent people were advocating the firing of gay teachers in public schools. In my lifetime, it's hard to believe.

Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of Milk and on-going writer for the polygamous Mormon family drama Big Love HBO series, said he wanted to remember, and to remind others, that the rights that many take for granted now were fought for tooth and nail and in bloody clashes on the streets of America. Unfortunately, these are reminders that we often require.

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