starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, and Victor Garber
written by Dustin Lance Black
directed by Guy Van Sant
Sean Penn deserved the Oscar he got for this film. I admire his acting, and in this film I admire his courage for the on-screen gay kissing. It’s a hard film to watch, I think, but worth it. Set in 1970s San Francisco, Harvey Milk is the first openly gay elected city official in California. He is elected at a time when conservatives - led by the Christian Right - were trying (and succeeding) to curtail civil rights for homosexuals - the right to hold state jobs, like teachers, for example. It was a campaign infamously championed by the former Miss America from Florida, Anita Bryant. Interestingly, although I knew nothing about Harvey Milk until I watched this movie, I very well recall contemporary news in the Canadian media of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay pronouncements. It was at a time when, as a teenager, I was just starting to read the newspapers regularly and take an interest in domestic and international current events. For me that was a process that began when I watched Richard Nixon resign the U.S. Presidency on live television in August 1974 and continues to the present. (I remember the Vietnam War, Watergate, the ‘Fuddle Duddle’ episode of Pierre Trudeau - he uttered an audible invective at an opposition lawmaker in the House of Commons - the Fall of Saigon, the election of Jimmy Carter, the death of Chairman Mao, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the first flight of the Space Shuttle, the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Teheran, etc. I also remember the Apollo 11 moon launch on TV, the televised coronation of Charles as the Prince of Wales, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Red Skelton Show, the 1970 October Crisis in Canada, and the 1972 Canada-USSR ice hockey series when Paul Henderson became a national hero by scoring the tie-breaking winning goal. These memories have nothing to do with Harvey Milk, but I mention them in order to speak towards the topic of how current events were penetrating my consciousness in those years.)
The struggle in Americafor gay civil rights it ongoing, so Milkis relevant for us today. And it’s infuriating, too, not just to see these portrayals on the screen knowing that they are portrayals of real, ongoing events - that there are still people who conscientiously want to deny civil rights to groups in society based on parochial interests. Denying civil rights is a very slippery slope.