Milk starring Sean Penn in his Academy Award (Best Actor in a leading role) performance is based on real life incidents of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in San Francisco, California in the 1970s. This film chronicles the period of time in his life where Milk decided to ‘come out of the closet’ so to speak, from which time onwards he didn’t feel the need to hide his sexual preferences from the rest of the world.
The movie begins around Milk’s 40th birthday when he decides to move from New York City to San Francisco. It starts off with his foray into city politics, and some of the battles he waged from the Castro neighborhood. His political campaigns against any limitations on gay rights by Anita Bryant and John Briggs are given special attention in the movie as these campaigns were the ones which catapulted Milk into large scale public attention.
Politically Milk’s career doesn’t quite start with a bang as he loses the first two elections he contested in, to become a city supervisor. These defeats take a reasonable toll on his own ambitions and belief as to whether the gay community would ever be able to find a place for itself in the political system of the state. However, when he finally wins the election to a place in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office of any kind in the USA.
In office though Milk learns that there is more to politics and people’s impressions of him than just meets the eye. He learns that even though people on the street might hate him, they do so only because of his sexual preferences, however, politicians are a very different breed of people who make and break friendships purely based on circumstantial convenience. Case in point being Dan White, a fellow supervisor.
White initially hates Milk for all the public and media attention that he gets wherever he goes and whatever he does. The fact that White is a Vietnam veteran and religiously conservative also doesn’t help the fact that he anyway cannot stand Milk for him being so openly gay. However, he enters into a political understanding with Milk which he anyways finally ends up disrespecting. As mentioned before, trusting White probably one of the biggest mistakes that Milk would make in his life as it would ultimately lead to his death.
A bulk of the movie deals with how Milk and his supporters try and successfully lead a nationwide fight against ‘Proposition 6’, an initiative to ban gay and lesbians and anyone who supported them from working in California’s public schools in any capacity. In fact, this is pretty much the central plot point in this movie.
Another interesting aspect of this movie is the fact that it goes in reasonable detail about Milk’s love life and how his career and public life ended up spoiling it completely for him. His first partner, Cleve Jones leaves him as he hates being second fiddle when compared to Milk’s political career. His next partner, Jack Lira came across as a reasonably obsessed partner who couldn’t stand Milk spending time with anybody or anything else at all. In fact, both these people serve to inform the audience that despite the fact that Harvey Milk was able to give so much hope to gays and lesbians in America, he himself was probably a lonely man at least during the latter part of his life.
What works for me in this movie is that despite the fact that it is a political movie, the screenplay is quite taut with adequate action happening at a nice pace. Sean Penn manages to portray his character with reasonable ease which is probably why he ended up winning the Academy Award anyways. Special mention must be made to the Art Direction department and the Costume Designers for getting the montage of 1970s America spot on.
In my personal opinion, this is one movie which all of us must necessarily watch, if not for anything else, to realize that gays and lesbians are as human as the rest of us. This movie will teach us to be more inclusive of them in our daily lives and hopefully will make us more tolerant than we already are.
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