Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Harvey Milk, The Film - A Review

Talk of "the family" being undermined, the Christian minority uniting against gay people, a legislative proposition that will take rights away from a section of the population, a hotly disputed vote, high profile politicians (including republicans) coming out against the proposition.

This must sound very familiar to your average Californian only just a month after Proposition 8, which took away gay people's right to marry, was voted in.

This is however not about Proposition 8 but about one Proposition 6, which was introduced 30 years ago. The aim of this particular Proposition was to ban gay people in California from public service positions simply because of their sexuality (this targeted teachers particularly).

Last night I was lucky enough to go to a UK preview of the soon to be released film Milk. Gus Van Sant's latest film, starring Sean Penn, retraces the last 8 years of the life of American gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who came down in history as the first openly gay man to be elected to a high office.

In 1978, after several attempts, he was elected Supervisor of the City of San Francisco. Six months later he was assassinated (together with the then Mayor of the City) by a disgruntled former fellow Supervisor.

poster for Gus Van Sant's Milk
The film was released in the US a day before the 30th anniversary of the death of Milk (27th November 1978) and has received public and critical acclaim (even from element of the Christian press) but the project had been lingering in production hell for years.

I guess the main hurdle facing the creators of the film is that the story line is, for a biopic, quite conventional and there was clearly a danger of falling into the most dreadful clichés.

Thankfully, Van Sant manages to stay well clear of this and creates two hours of unrelenting cinematography. This is much helped by the cast's wonderful performances. Sean Penn is particularly good at impersonating Milk; even the physical resemblance is quite striking.

Another achievement of the creative team behind the film is its recreation of 1970s San Francisco and its atmosphere of excitement and the naissant expectation within the gay community for something better. The feeling that things had to change and that everything was possible if one just got out there and took action pervades the film, which explicitly aims for a message of hope.

The use of original footage and some meticulous research are to be thanked for this. The help of people who knew Milk and worked with him must have been invaluable too. The crew used the original shop owned by Milk when he first moved to the Castro (the gay area of San Francisco). They also “recreated” the street around it as it would have looked at the time and restored the famous Castro theatre to its former glory.

Trailer for the film.

Unlike Brokeback Mountain, the previous major Hollywood film to feature homosexuality as a central theme, there is no room for a controversy around the hero’s sexuality. Milk is openly gay (though he lived in the closet most of his life) and unapologetically so. This is not the point of the film, though.

The true reason for the film’s success is that it manages to transmit Milk’s sheer energy and charm, and his certainty that what he was fighting for was “not an issue, it’s our lives”. As such this is something that any audience member should be able to appreciate and identify with.

Ultimately, this is an incredibly empowering film and, to me, one of those films that should be made compulsory, especially, perhaps, for the younger generations in the LGBT community and to those that feel that we have arrived and don’t need to fight for our rights anymore.

As Milk’s character says in the film, he indeed did not reach 50 (he was 48 when he was killed) but contrary to his fear, he did achieve something he could be proud of. Something we can all be proud of, not only as member of the LGBT community but as human beings.

Even if things seem to have changed very little in the US for the past 30 years.

It is a stunning film (in many ways). My name is Zefrog and I am here to recruit you: Go and see it and take your colleagues, friends, family, lovers, shags, pets, etc… Make it a success. It has to be.

Harvey Milk on Wikipedia
Milk on Wikipedia
Official website
The Times of Harvey Milk

A much revised and shortened version of this review was published on Qind Blogazine here.

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