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MV5BMTI2OTM5NjUzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY1MTM5MQ@@__V1__SX1217_SY602_Released: 28th November 2008

Directed By: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Emile Hirsch

Certificate: 15

Reviewer: Darragh Roche

Here’s the pitch: the Martin Luther King of the gay rights movement. Harvey Milk is an unlikely subject for a biopic and Sean Penn was an unlikely choice to play him. Milk is the story of how a small-time businessman and local politician became an icon for the LGBT movement. Released to coincide with the vote on California’s Proposition 8, Van Sant’s touching portrayal of a mild-mannered civil rights campaigner doesn’t try to preach about equality or the evils of prejudice – it accomplishes that by showing the human side of California’s gay community. As the film unravels the lives and troubles of Harvey and his friends, the real absurdity of 1970s bigotry is revealed.

It’s clear from the opening scenes that tragedy awaits Milk. He was murdered by another city official in 1979 and became a martyr to the gay rights cause. But there is a strong sense that Van Sant wanted to get the assassination off the table and focus instead on Milk’s achievements. In what may be Penn’s greatest performance, Milk knowingly plays up to the effeminate stereotype and successfully makes himself non-threatening and electable. This pandering behaviour might be frowned upon today, but for Milk and his erstwhile lover Scott (James Franco) baby steps are the wisest way forward. Milk’s rise to fame as a member of the Board of Supervisors is delicately chronicled, showing every bump along the road. As he loses election after election, the unassuming Harvey gathers more and more gay and lesbian supporters, providing a focal point for disenfranchised gay youth and hope for an older, more cynical generation.

Milk’s greatest challenge comes with the introduction of Prop 6 – a deliberately provocative attempt to ban gay teachers from public schools. The rhetoric is eerily similar to today’s debates around gay marriage and adoption rights where ‘think of the children’ becomes a rallying cry for a loose alliance of bigots and vote-seeking politicians. It is poignantly fitting that Milk’s death is almost as pointless as the bigotry and hatred he spent years fighting. A fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin) murders Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) at city hall following the defeat of Prop 6. White’s attack is portrayed more as the desperate act of a broken man than one of savage bigotry.

Milk is a parable for the gay rights movement today. The same debates are being waged about equality now, only the battle grounds have changed. Milk reminds us that deliberately anti-gay laws and open prejudice are still within living memory – and that even one determined person can make a world of difference.


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