On Sunday, Susie and I drove across town to the one movie theatre within probably 150 miles that will show “controversial” films. We had made the trek back when Brokeback Mountain was in theatres and would have done so for Religulous, but apparently the latter was too much even for the Green Hills Regal. This time we went to see Milk, and I was impressed enough to actually blog my first movie review.
This is the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to political office in the United States. He was assassinated while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.
I had written a paper when I was in college on the gay rights movement for my persuasion theory class. It just so happened that an entire section of my paper was about Harvey Milk, and so most of the details in the movie were familiar to me. I knew to expect his failed runs for office and his ultimate success after the redistricting of the Castro. I knew to expect his death, as well as the death of Mayor George Moscone who was killed by the same gunman. I knew that the gunman was Dan White, a fellow San Francisco Board of Supervisors member. (Dan White, by the way, served a total of only five years for the double murder after his attornies claimed the famous “Twinkie Defense” which essentially stated that he was on such a sugar high from a junk food obsession that it affected his behavior and decision-making abilities. No. I’m not kidding.) I even expected the candle light vigil attended by over 30,000 people who marched through San Francisco in Milk’s honor.
What I didn’t expect was what makes this movie a must-see. I did not expect to see the well known hyper-sexual culture of the Castro District in the 1970s portrayed so honestly and yet, by the magnificent direction of Gus Van Sant, not hampering empathy for the main character in any way. I did not expect to be so completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of Sean Penn in the title role. For two hours I didn’t think of Sean Penn once. He WAS Harvey Milk. And, most importantly, I did not expect to cry.
Harvey Milk was a civil rights activist of immense importance in our nation’s history. He accomplished remarkable things, and he did so honestly, openly, . . . yes, even flamboyantly. One of the things Milk spoke about often in speeches was hope, and I couldn’t help but think about how pertinent that message still is for a nation so hungry for hope that we elected a President to try to get some back. Harvey Milk was a man ahead of his time, and those kinds often have to pay for being out of step. He knew what he was doing might get him killed, but he did it anyway to prove “You are not sick. You are not wrong.”
The fact that Harvey Milk is not remembered as vividly as other slain civil rights leaders says a lot about our country. Perhaps we’re ready now to give him at least a portion of the credit he deserved 30 years ago.