Monday, December 1, 2008

Get Milk

I am not gay. I do not live in San Francisco. I was not an adult nor politically aware in the 1970s.

However, this past weekend my wife and I saw a truly inspirational movie about a San Francisco man who, in 1977, became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in America.

The movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, is titled "Milk" in reference to the real life subject of the story - Harvey Milk.

Played expertly by Sean Penn, the compelling character of Milk is portrayed beginning in his pre-San Francisco days, then on to his early efforts at organizing San Francisco's Castro district into a voting block with real power in city politics, through his early campaigns for office, delving into his personal life and continues on up to his profound victories in winning a seat on the city supervisor board as well as defeating a state-wide anti-gay rights measure.

(Photo of Harvey Milk from the Living Cinema blog.)

These were all real and important events - both personal and historical - and they were well played by actors who you completely believed. 

But, as good as all that was, I felt the movie was far more than just believable replay of events centering on gay rights. No, this movie carries more importance in my mind...transcending a single issue and moving into the broad territory of heroism and political inspiration that we should all seek to emulate or - at least - seek out as we try and build a better America in our own towns, states and country. To me, these broader themes are evident in the movie in three ways:
  1. It doesn't take an "elite" to make change happen - Milk was a everyday guy, with a regular education, with a regular job and went through the same ups and downs in relationships and with family as most people. However, he had the backbone to do something when he saw wrong happening in his neighborhood, his city and his nation. That "wrong" was the way gay Americans are treated by their fellow citizens and by the government - denying them the same basic rights against discrimination among other things.

  2. The right thing to do for one group is the right thing to do for everyone - Milk's message became broad. While he plainly said his political efforts were primarily focused on gay rights, he also acknowledged that it became more than that. Society has discriminated and dis-empowered gays, but it has also done so to minorities, the unemployed, the poor, seniors and others. In the end, Milk was carrying the banner for these other under-represented groups and said so. To me, this was very appealing aspect of his character and how his political ideas evolved.

  3. Relevance -  Broadly speaking, important change takes time and typically involves struggles requiring inspiring leaders. The issue of gay rights, and human rights really, has just as much relevance today across the country as they did in the 1970s. Think of all the state initiatives to ban equal rights (employment, housing, benefits, military service, etc.) for gays or to establish them, to ban marriage for gays or to recognize, that come up every election cycle. And, think about how much debate, heat, hate and love those contests bring to the surface...including the best recent example of Prop 8 in California. So, Milk's fight goes on today.

Sadly, Harvey Milk is no longer with us. For those of you who have not seen the movie or heard of Milk before, I won't spoil why that is for you because I think learning this fact on your own is important...offering up further evidence of how difficult it can be to make change in the U.S.A. and the lengths some will go to try and stop it.

My bottom line on this movie is - do yourself a favor and see it and judge for yourself. 

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