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#LGBTQMustSee: Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”

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Harvey Milk, a middle-class Jewish guy from NYC, served in the US Navy during the Korean War and like so many other closeted gay people, he chose San Francisco in the 1970s as that place to open the door to his true self and be in the company of his tribe.

Listen up all you baby gays, there is a history lesson to be learned. Sit down and watch the remarkable Academy Award winning The Times Of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein, narrated by Harvey Fierstein, with an original score by Mark Isham.

Also, essential as a history lesson and an example of truly great filmmaking, you need to watch the powerful Academy Award winning Milk (2008), directed by my good close personal friend, Portland’s own Gus Van SantMilk received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning two: Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for the delectable Dustin Lance Black.  It was nominated for four BAFTA Awards and appeared in 131 different critics Top Ten Films of 2008 lists.

Milk conveys Harvey Milk’s strong moral principal in an extraordinarily potent and stylish way. Milk:

What matters is the fight, more than the outcome!” 

Black’s screenplay is very dense and well-organized, following fastidious steps for bringing its message to the audience, at the same time respecting the historic chronology, always the perpetual dilemma of a biopic. With a stunning cast, including Josh BrolinEmile HirshDiego Luna and James Franco, the emotionally charged movie was the winner of The New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture Award for 2008.

Van Sant fashioned a film that is accessible to all, while approaching his subject with sharp focus and a singleness of purpose that is at once definitive and topical. A stunning achievement, Milk manages to make its point without ever being preachy or trite, while remaining as true to the facts as any film bio could ever hope to be, with a perfect cast and lovingly detailed direction.

Milk begins in 1970 on Milk’s 40th birthday, when he was still living in NYC. It chronicles his move to San Francisco and his foray into city politics, and the various battles he waged in the Castro neighborhood and throughout the city, and political campaigns to limit Gay Rights in 1977 run by Anita Bryant and John Briggs. It takes on his romantic and political relationships, especially his tenuous affiliation with troubled Supervisor Dan White; the film ends with White’s murder of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The film’s release was tied to the 2008 California voter referendum on Marriage Equality, Proposition 8. Milk premiered at the Castro Theatre two weeks before election day.

Milk opening credits appear over  vintage film clips from LGBTQ History that many young gays and especially straight people may be shocked to discover. Less than 40 years ago, gay men, lesbians and transgender people were subjected to violence, harassment, physical abuse, arrest and humiliation by the very people who are supposed to offer protection for the citizens: the police and judicial authorities. Newsreel footage shows raids on gay bars that today seem bizarre and barbaric. Today’s baby gays probably don’t realize that in the 1940s through 1970s, right here in the good old USA, LGBTQ people were arrested for simply patronizing a gay bar. Those arrested had their names and employers published in the newspaper, leaving them jobless and unemployable, forever branded as a pervert.

Brolin as Dan White with Penn, Axon Films via YouTube

Van Sant brings out Penn’s best performance ever with a warts-and-all portrait of a frail human with an idealistic bent and a politician’s savvy. Queer film fans can find a real sense of pride and purpose from seeing Milk, and straights can gain a better knowledge of just who gay people are, what they want, and why they still must fight for acceptance. Take it fro me, Milk is a triumph and a must see film.


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