Milk (Directed by Gus Van Sant)

After the Open Stack meeting at the Digg offices the other week, I turned down a kind offer from Tony to allow me to invade his dinner date and walked back to my hotel. The route took me up Sixteenth St, through the Mission, past Castro and into the Haight. Having mostly spent my San Francisco time further up Market St and around the various companies who make their homes in SoMa, it was a side to the city I’d never seen before – particularly at night.

Alongside the Christmas lights and leftover Obama posters (“HOPE” shone from nearly every window), Castro was glowing with anti-Proposition 8 signs. (Prop 8 is the unconstitutional, recently-passed legislation that formalises marriage as being between a man and a woman.) The sidewalks along Market St were filled with openly gay couples being free and open with each other, in a way that – despite significant civil rights advances – you still really don’t see anywhere.

Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro St”, who was the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States. It does have its flaws, but as Jeff Jarvis says:

Sean Penn does an incredible job capturing Milk’s intensity, humor, joy, and decency. It is a great performance. […] What Milk does brilliantly is portray the moment and the movement in intimate human terms, not with soaring music, not with gay cliches, not with PC delicacies but with emotion and reality. I recommend it highly.

Alongside Wall-E, I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen over the last twelve months. (And on that note, if you don’t believe a kids’ cartoon can be a genuinely good movie with wide appeal and message, I recommend you give it a try …)

What has struck me, though, is that the movie only seems to be opening in cities – in other words, bypassing the more homophobic small town communities that could really use it. As this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes:

Even with strides, remnants of the discrimination that people like Mr. Milk and Mr. Bell faced still linger, school officials say, and that is why they need safe and supportive environments for students who are gay.

Last year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network unveiled its “National School Climate Survey.” Of the 6,200 gay middle and high school students surveyed, about 90 percent had been harassed and 60 percent said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

One of the most powerful moments in the movie comes when Milk realises he is empowering young people across the country who previously thought, and were being told, that there was something wrong with them – which is one reason why this inspirational film should have wide distribution. Another is that it’s an exceptionally well-made, powerful film that any intelligent person should enjoy.

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