Friday, 30 January 2009

'My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you'

Last week I went to see 'Milk' and I can heartily recommend it. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US when he became a Supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. Although this was no mean feat, given that his constituency covered the city's gay district (the Castro) it was perhaps another campaign that was more astonishing. Milk was at the centre of the defeat of Proposition 6 which would have made the dismissal of gay teachers mandatory across California. Rather than hide behind mealy-mouthed assertions about human rights as some of the moderates in the campaign would have prefered, Milk took the bigots head on in public debates, and urged gay Californians to come out to friends and family.

The defeat of Proposition 6 was a turning point in the battle for gay rights in the US. Up to that point a wave of homophobia was sweeping the country, not least due to the efforts of evangelical Christian singer Anita Bryant. Milk's achievement was not so much to get elected, although that helped, but to build a movement. Thus it was that when both he and the Mayor of San Francisco were shot dead by a fellow Supervisor in 1978, 30,000 people turned out on the streets to mourn.

On Newsnight Review the day the film came out, Tony Parsons complained that the film was sanitised for a straight audience. This was San Francisco in the 70s, he said, where were the bath houses, the depravity? He even went so far to compare it to Philadelphia, the supposedly groundbreaking 1993 film with Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS who never so much as kisses his boyfriend on screen. In fact, I think Tony entirely missed the point. This was not a film primarily about gay life in 70s Frisco, but about political activism. The kissing, and indeed sex, was there in appropriate amounts to tell the story.

The generally excellent director Gus Van Sant made the right call here, and does a great job of invoking the excitement of the movement at the time (at one point an angry crowd of protesters chant "civil rights or civil war, gay rights now!"). Sean Penn's performance is also great, as a number of reviewers have commented. But perhaps the best recommendation is that despite the fact that though Harvey dies at the end of the film, you're still left with a sense of hope and optimism.

Being both gay and an activist, this was perhaps an obvious film for me to go see, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who isn't a thorough reactionary will enjoy it!

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