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Everybody Needs 'Milk'

By Lisa Pease
December 5, 2008

You don't have to be gay to like "Milk."

The film is a powerful tale of the rise and subsequent assassination of the first openly gay person to ascend to a major political office anywhere on the planet.

But the story is also a universal one, of one man's awakening to his personal power, and using it to help others. Incredibly acted and beautifully made by director Gus Van Sant (of "Good Will Hunting," among others), this story deserves a place in your holiday viewing.

"Milk" tells the story of Harvey Milk, who awoke from his routine life in the insurance industry in his forties to realize he needed to do more with his life. Encouraged by the sexual awakening of the Sixties, Milk moved to what was not yet known as the Castro district and opened a camera shop with his lover, where he quickly became a leader in the growing gay community.

Despite his local popularity, it took Milk several runs before he became a member of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco. The film dramatizes Milk's personal and public travails along that journey.

In the 1970s, most homosexuals were still closeted; Anita Bryant was waging a religious war against homosexuals; and the gay community had not yet discovered how to organize politically.

The film allows you to travel in Milk's shoes, to experience the hate and discrimination to which homosexuals are still often subjected. The film is inspiring, as you see this man volley the hate, anger and ignorance with peace, love and understanding.

The film shows how his political journey takes its toll on his personal life, as he keeps choosing to serve the many as opposed to spending more time with his partners.

And Milk challenges his supporters to bare their souls, to come out of the closet, pointing out that when people realize someone they know is gay, they are far more likely to support legislation protecting gay rights.

Milk knew that his actions might lead to his own assassination. The film opens with Milk talking into a tape recorder in the event that he is killed before he can finish his life's work.

Sean Penn is a marvel as Milk. Normally the angry, brooding character, in “Milk,” Penn is a white Barack Obama, inspiring people with hope, and demonstrating emotional intelligence and undeniable competence.

James Franco plays Penn's long-term love interest Scott Smith with intelligence and grace. Emile Hirsch (who starred in the Penn-directed film "Into the Wild") plays a charismatic young community activist whom Milk mentors.

Alison Pill plays the only woman of significance in the film, activist Anne Kronenberg, and Diego Luna is convincing as Penn's last and perhaps least stable lover.

Josh Brolin offers a marvelous counterpoint to Penn, delivering a multifaceted performance as the troubled Dan White, a fellow Supervisor torn between befriending and rejecting the amiable Milk.

The film literally crackles with echoes of this most recent political season. Obama supporters in particular will find much to cheer.

The film reminds us that the struggle for gay rights is simply another facet of the struggle for human rights, a battle we haven't yet figured out how to win. But Harvey Milk took us several big steps forward, and in this holiday season, I, for one, am grateful.

Lisa Pease is a historian and a movie buff.

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