June 14, 2011

Queer Review: Milk (2008)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare

Harvey Milk was among the first openly gay politicians run and be elected to a major public office in the United States, and the first in the state of California. Milk is the Gus Van Sant directed biopic of Harvey Milk's life, with Sean Penn in the title role.

Milk starts out with the initial meeting between Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his longtime lover Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station and ends with his assassination at the hands of Dan White (Josh Brolin). In between we are shown Milk's early political campaign struggles and the events of his brief political career once he was elected, along with the strained political relationship he had with Dan White. There is also some time focused on Anita Bryant's homphobic campaigns against civil rights, which featured legislation to make it legal to fire "homosexual" teachers in California and that Harvey Milk publicly campainged against.

The Queering
On the whole, this is a fairly standard bio-pic. However, there are a few things that do make it stand out. The first is Sean Penn's performance as Harvey Milk which embodies the cliche of "bringing [insert historical figure here] to life". The other is the amount of insight provided into Harvey Milk and the homophobia that existed during the time period.

I also have to say that there are also plenty of emotionally moving scenes. This is what makes the film work. Without emotional investment in the struggles of Harvey Milk, this picture would simply not work.

However, I do have a minor criticism, although this is more broadly applied to Hollywood on the whole. Are there not enough mainstream pictures about gay white men now? It's not like there are not any other historical figures to choose from. When are we going to see a bio-pic of Sylvia Rivera, Ruth C. Ellis, George Washington Carver, or Bayard Rustin? I am just getting a little tired of there not being a heck of a lot of variety out there to choose from when it comes to queer films.

In any case, what Milk sets out to do, it does well. There is also enough insight into Milk's life and philosophy here to make it worthwhile viewing. Two quotes from Milk in particular stand out for me. I found the first the most insightful. When is when Supervisor Dan White tells Harvey that "you have an issue", Harvey responds with, "It's more than an issue, this is our lives we're fighting for."

The other one is the most moving:
I ask this... If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out - - If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door... And that's all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it's not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power... it's about the "us's" out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us's. Without hope, the us's give up - I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you... You gotta give em' hope... you gotta give em' hope.

Highly recommended. Milk makes a good starting point for those who wish to know more about the history of gay activism and queer politics.

The Rating


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