Thursday, January 1, 2009

"Milk": Stirring Portrayal Of America's First Openly Gay Official

Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is a moving depiction of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to serve in public office as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk moved from New York City to the Castro District of San Francisco during a period when the police still arrested patrons of gay bars (in New York, such raids led to the 1969 Stonewall riots) and area merchants did not welcome gay-owned businesses.

Milk was viewed askance by the gay political establishment, which preferred to quietly work for incremental change. Yet he refused to hide his homosexuality, even in the face of death threats, and encouraged gays to "out" themselves. Though losing several elections, Milk persevered with a two-pronged strategy: openly campaigning on a gay rights platform and working in coalition with organized labor, seniors and other groups.

Those dismayed by the passing of Proposition 8, which rescinded the rights of gays to marry in California, gain historical perspective as the film depicts the fight over Proposition 6, sponsored by Senator John Briggs, which called for the firing of gay teachers. Briggs was inspired by the repeal of an ordinance that made gay discrimination illegal, an effort led by Anita Bryant. Proposition 6, however, was defeated.

Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were murdered by city supervisor Dan White, an anti-gay conservative who became unhinged after he was denied reinstatement to his position following his resignation. White was sentenced to only five years after his attorneys invoked the infamous "Twinkie defense," the claim that their client was mentally imbalanced due to junk food. White committed suicide a year and a half after his release.

Sean Penn, as the courageous and impassioned Harvey Milk, and Josh Brolin, as the brooding and resentful Dan White, turn in outstanding performances. Penn is fully convincing as the charismatic city supervisor who taught gays across the country essential lessons: to embrace their identity and to keep fighting for their civil rights. With the just struggle for full marriage equality underway, the life story shown in "Milk" offers particular inspiration. 

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