Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Mayor Of Castro Street: Harvey Milk

Seeing the new film "Milk", based on the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever elected to public office, allowed me to reflect exactly how much and at the same time how little has changed for gay rights in 30 years. Thus "Milk" has become an inspiration for GLBTs angered by California voters’ rejection in November of gay marriage.

Sean Penn gives us his greatest performance as Milk,indeed Penn deserves the hype one sees in Hollywood movie commercials from time to time that state So and So is Whoever. In this case it is not hype, Penn is Harvey Milk, a New Yorker who in the early ’70s moves to San Francisco to be more open and himself. He and his then boyfriend Scott (James Franco) open a camera shop on Castro Street, rally the growing gay community and through his charisma and energy and becomes the leader of the city’s gay community and "The Mayor of Castro Street". Milk unsuccessfully ran for office three times before being elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Milk takes his position on the Board at the same time as former police officer Dan White (Josh Brolin). While Milk is effective, organized and a whiz at getting publicity, White fails in every respect as a Supervisor. Director Gus Van Sant and Brolin do not make White out to be a homophobic monster but more of a confused, in-articulate neophyte, angry at himself for being a failure, a victim of his upbringing and fearful of something he does not understand. But as so many do, he could not publicly blame himself, he had to have a scapegoat... and that was the flamboyant and public Milk.

Much of the film recreates Milk's campaigns, his strained relationship with Scott and then with insecure, suicidal Jack Lira an finally the battle to defeat California Proposition 6 which aims to ban gays and their supporters from teaching in California. Archival footage (including the despicable, pathetic Anita Bryant)is woven into the action, making this as much a historic document as it is a fascinating story.

The supporting cast is all excellent, the cinematography is suitably grainy to match the 70's vintage setting, the film well paced with doses of humor to lighten the path to the inevitable conclusion. As he does with White, Van Sant makes Milk as flawed, charismatic and energetic as he really was.

"Milk" is about the perseverance of the human spirit and the power that one person with commitment and involvement can unleash. White's victims, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered in cold blood due to ignorance and fear of this power. I urge you to see "Milk"--it's an amazing and timely story.

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