Unsolicited Endorsement #15: Milk

I finally got around to watching Milk this past weekend.

Wow.

This is an extraordinarily powerful film, made only more urgent by the recent landmark rulings supporting same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont. (Yes: Iowa. Which is apparently more progressive than California. Figures.) Regardless of where you stand in the church vs. state debate, it would be an absolute disservice not to see this movie, which chronicles one man’s fight to achieve equal protection under the law for a marginalized population that had become a frighteningly easy target for blatant discrimination and unprovoked violence. All men are created equal indeed.

For those unfamiliar with the subject of this film: Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. As a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s, Milk was eventually successful in rallying support against the church-backed Proposition 6, which would have fired gay teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights throughout the entire state. Shortly after Proposition 6 failed, Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone by Dan White, another member of the Board of Supervisors.

Performances across the board are revelatory, including Sean Penn in his Oscar-deserving performance as Milk. Josh Brolin embodied Dan White’s quiet and ultimately violent unhinging effectively and disturbingly. At points during the film, I found myself begrudgingly sympathizing with White’s plight as an inferior, second-fiddle public-servant-wannabe to the more effective Milk. (Rumors abounded that White was gay himself.) The only distraction for me was Diego Luna as Jack Lira, one of Milk’s boyfriends, whose acting choices somehow reminded me of a drugged-out Rob Schneider every time he was on screen.

Overall though, kudos should go to director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who made this film less about what it means to be gay and more about what it means to be American. They made the movie about the pursuit of those certain inalienable rights instead of the pursuit of the next random hookup (which apparently has been the one-note focus of gay cinema up until recently). I think that’s what makes this film a compelling — and effective — mouthpiece for the larger fight for equal rights that’s coming down the horizon. 

Two things struck me as I watched this movie.

First, I bristled at the kind of vitriol propagated by the religious right to scare Americans into believing that gay teachers were out recruiting kids to join their Evil Bestiality Cult. Scary is the prospect that all of this happened just over 30 years ago. Scarier is the fact that these same arguments are being used today to fuel the hatred against gay rights. (See: The National Organization for Marriage’s $1.5 million ad campaign. See also: humorous and creative backlash against the organization’s tactics.)

I think it’s tremendously sad that so-called Christians are turning to such scare tactics. Especially because the whole “You’re going to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” approach is so damn effective to begin with. I’m with whoever observed that the greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians. Jesus boiled down the law and the prophets to a simple (maybe not so simple) command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m convinced that two thousand years of legalistic religiosity have only served to muck up Jesus’ ideal. We Christians spend so much time and energy convincing each other that we’re wrong that we forget the simple truth that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Second, as someone who doesn’t have a particularly activist bent (but thinks he should), it struck me to see a real-life example of a compelling change agent who successfully, if not painstakingly, challenged the status quo by using the system instead of tearing it down. Here was a man who saw inequality and injustice and did something about it – smartly and strategically. Seeing his example was a personal challenge to me to quit standing on the sidelines and start doing something to make a difference. We all have spheres of influence; imagine what the world would be like if we all started to do something to make life a little better for another human being.

In a tape recording to be played in the event of his assassination, Harvey Milk said: “I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope.” (Quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), p. 277)

Maybe there’s hope.

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