Gus Vant Sant’s new film “Milk”, is a biopic of the 1970s gay rights activist Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn. Penn gives one of his best performances to date as the charismatic and outspoken gay leader, portraying him from his very few last days as a Republican-voting, Wall Street bureaucrat in the late 60s early 70s to his awakening as a fighter against gay oppression and subsequent assassination in 1978.
The film documents much of his early progressive community organizing, such as successful boycotts of anti-gay shops and businesses in San Francisco and later on helping with a Teamsters Union boycott of Coors Beer, in which he managed to get it removed from all the gay bars in town. Coors Beer caved soon after and in return the Teamsters hired their very first openly gay drivers. It then goes on to portray his perennial election campaigns and subsequent election to City Supervisor in 1977.
While this can be seen as reformism, it must be noted Harvey Milk was no leftist revolutionary, his only aim was for gays to be accepted as normal human beings and not sexual deviants.
Make of his strategy what you may, this film is a very good depiction of someone with such an outlook and activists of any cause can learn from the organizational methods that Harvey Milk employed. And it is clear in the film that Milk used his position as a platform for gay rights rather than for mere opportunistic careerism,; for example he was one of the lead campaigners against Proposition 6, a 1978 anti-gay referendum in California with eerie similarities to 2008′s Proposition 8. This referendum would have made anyone known to be gay or who supported gay rights lose their teaching jobs. It initially polled 80% in approval but it lost by a landslide in large part due to his highly publicized debates with anti-gay State Senator John Briggs, which he likely would not have had the opportunity to be a part of if he had not held some sort of public position.
And looking at the film from a larger angle than simply as simply a biopic, the film is an excellent documentation of the early gay rights movement, a subject not often touched upon in films. The film shows first-hand the persecution that gays faced and still face today, which may awaken a lot of people who think of anti-gay discrimination in a more abstract way. The film depicts how gays were in such danger that they carried whistles to alert people nearby if they were being attacked. The film also implicates the authorities, especially the cops, in turning a blind eye to anti-gay murders and assaults and in many cases being the ones undertaking the persecution themselves. The film starts with archive footage of the police raiding gay bars in the 1950s and in one scene, the police are seen viciously assaulting gay citizens for “blocking the sidewalk”. When Harvey Milk receives his first death threat and his boyfriend urges him to call the police, he responds by saying “They probably wrote it”. When Milk’s then-future assassin, highly conservative City Supervisor Dan White, resigns from his position, it is implied the police pressured him into taking the job back.
Overall, Milk is a very informative and entertaining film on gay rights and discrimination.