I was shocked by how good the film is (though there were a few scenes I could've done without). I'm not a fan of Gus Van Sant films, though he is Portland's most famous resident. I liked Good Will Hunting, loved Finding Forrester but hated Elephant (his interpretation of the Columbine High School massacre). I haven't seen his other works because none of them sounded very interesting. So, I didn't know how I would like this one. While I generally love bio-pics, there's one in recent memory that I did not like: Pollack, about artist Jackson Pollack.
The reason Harvey Milk merits a film is because in 1978, he became the first openly gay man to win elected office in the United States. And he won after losing three previous races (two for a City Supervisor position in San Francisco, one for Assemblyman for the California legislature). Seeing that it took him four times to finally win reminds me of the recent City Council races in Portland...where Nick Fish won on his third try and Amanda Fritz on her second try (so I hope Charles will run again for the next open seat). It shows a persistence that pays off, which is inspiring in itself.
The oddest thing about seeing this film is that the San Francisco we all know (and love) has the reputation for being THE MOST LIBERAL CITY in the country. It's odd to realize that it hasn't always been this way. There are working class neighbourhoods where homophobia runs rampant and the police were often the harassers of people in the counter culture movements than protectors of the peace. So, I guess its safe to assume that Harvey Milk was instrumental in changing the nature of San Francisco to become the liberal/progressive city it is today.
Sean Penn is phenomenal in his role as Harvey Milk. I expect a second Best Actor Oscar for him next year. He simply becomes the character and it's amazing to think back on his earlier role as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when it seemed like he might not be capable of such depth. In fact, after filming a scene where he kissed another man, Penn supposedly called his ex-wife Madonna and said something like, "I kissed another man for the first time in my life and you're the first person I thought to call." You know Madonna had to love that...she of her sexually provocative ways. Now that they are both single again, maybe they can rekindle a midlife romance (in 1991's Truth or Dare documentary, Madonna had said that Sean was the true love of her life, even though she was dating Warren Beatty at the time). I always had the impression that Sean Penn was homophobic, so it was a surprise to see him play such a character with sympathy and likeable charisma.
The most timely aspect of the movie is the odd deja vu where Harvey led the fight against Proposition 6, which sought to ban homosexuals from teaching in schools and to end job and housing protection for homosexuals. In the most recent election, California found itself with another divisive Proposition (#8), which sought to ban gay marriages. The results show that many Obama voters also voted for the Proposition, so it's not just a conservative thing. People still have issues. It's amazing to reflect on how little things have changed in 30 years, even though America is far more tolerant now.
As I left the theater, I reflected on my own coming to terms with homophobia. It all boils down to ignorance...a lot of it having to do with not knowing any gay people and of hearing the people you go to church with speak out against it.
In my senior year in high school, my government teacher Tom Malone often engaged the class in controversial topics. He didn't shy away from discussing gays in the military or the practice of outing people. Some students speculated on his sexual orientation, even though he was married with children. But, he showed that being tolerant of homosexuals doesn't mean you're homosexual. In one class discussion I remember well, he took a poll of the class on if we would vote for a black president, a woman president, and a gay president. The class was evenly mixed for a black or woman president, but unanimously opposed to a gay president. That caused a lot of joking among classmates about what a gay president would mean. We simply couldn't see that possibility EVER, even though Malone insisted that we probably already had a gay president: James Buchanan...the only bachelor to hold the office (meaning he never married at all).
At that time, I was against gays serving in the military, marrying, adopting children, holding public office and even teaching in school. My view started to change in 1992 when I was on liberty in Naples, Italy. I had sat behind two guys on the bus that was taking sailors from the pier to the Naval base. I overheard them discussing the warning we were issued regarding the "women streetwalkers." One of them said that some of the women were transvestites, and the other guy suggested that they actually go out looking for them to beat them up. I was shocked. In my homophobic mind, I would run away from those types of people, not seek them out to beat them up! I didn't understand that psychology at all. Here we were in Naples, with so many things to see and do, places to go...and these sailors wanted to waste time looking for men in drag to beat up? It didn't make sense to me at all.
The other event in 1992 was that a gay sailor was found beaten to death in a public restroom in Sasebo, Japan. In my "A" School class, I came close to picking Sasebo, Japan for a duty station (I chose La Maddalena, Sardinia instead). It made me think that I might've known this guy had I been stationed there. Again, it shocked me that someone hated gay people that much to actually kill them. I didn't understand that mindset. If I don't like a person, I don't have any involvement with them at all.
As I learned about the nature of homophobia, I also found it amusing going to movies with other guys while I was in the Navy. Whenever we sat in seats, if the other guy left an empty seat between us, I got the impression that he was homophobic in the sense of not wanting others to think he was gay. Those who were secure in their heterosexual identity did not leave a vacant seat between them and another guy. It was an interesting observation. It proved embarrassing if the other guy sat down first and I sat in the seat next to him and he then moved to have an open seat between us. Weird. I never understood why some guys are afraid to sit next to another guy in a theater...yet go to any movie theater near a military base and you will often find that to be the case. My friends and I always had a laugh about it.
In 1996 or 1997, I was still a little bit homophobic, however. I remember going to a booksigning by former President Jimmy Carter for his Living Faith book. The signing was at a bookstore in Ansley Mall in Midtown, which is a predominantly gay neighbourhood in Atlanta. I was driving into the parking lot when two men walked hand in hand in front of my car and stopped to kiss each other on the lips. I was so mad that my hands gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white. I almost wanted to floor it and run them over, but I didn't. I let them continue walking out of my way before proceeding towards the bookstore part of the parking lot.
At college in Utah, I had a roommate who was disfellowshipped from the LDS Church for "same sex attraction." He claimed that he was "over it" and completely straight, yet he made odd statements/noises regarding women that made me doubt that claim. It's hard to explain, other than that it was like he was overemphasizing the fact that he was attracted to women. For example, if a pretty woman was shown on screen during a music video or commercial, he would make an "mmmmmmm" sound like he was food tasting his own cooking! It was weird. And when another roommate came home from work, he would sit on the couch and say, "I had a bad day until you came home." It was kind of obvious that he was attracted to that roommate. Still, despite his struggle to be straight, I wasn't very nice about it (because he was often abusive towards me for not converting to the LDS Church. His demand was: "convert or leave BYU!"). When he claimed to have a Russian lady wanting to marry him, he asked if that would convince me he was heterosexual. My response was brutal. I told him: "even if you became a polygamist and had seven wives, I would still think you're gay!" He was hurt by that statement. Honestly, who am I to say what he might choose to be? I simply saw a conflict between his natural inclination and his fanatical devotion to Mormon doctrine (he had said that he wanted to be a god of his own world someday so he could "make people practice polygamy or kill them"!).
At BYU, I rolled my eyes when I heard one girl's theory of homosexuality as "a challenge, because some guys attract women so easily that they get bored and want to try the challenge of attracting men." She was naive about a lot of things, but that truly took the cake.
When I was in D.C., I remember seeing two guys kissing on the Metro and I didn't freak out this time. The thought that came to my mind was, "at least they found someone!" Me, I still struggled trying to find a lady without obstacles between us to overcome (such as religion), where mutual attraction actually exists. Who was I to deny anyone the right to love?
The test of homophobia wasn't passed until recently, however. Earlier this year, the Sam Adams campaign contacted me to volunteer on their campaign. From all that I read about Commissioner Adams, I felt that he was the best man to be the next mayor of Portland. He's smart, very wonky, funny, and well connected. Oh, and yes...he is openly gay. For me, it wasn't even an issue...and it didn't even come up during the Mayor's race. It's the way it should be. The voters decided based on what he brings to the office, the right mix of experiences, knowledge, personality and connections. From my senior year proclamation in government class that I'd never vote for a gay politician, to actively volunteering to elect one for Mayor 18 years later represents to me an evolution in personal understanding and tolerance. In fact, so beyond homophobia am I that when I phonebanked for Adams back in March and May, I was shocked when the person I talked to would say, "I would never vote for a faggot" or "I don't support the homosexual agenda" or "I object to his lifestyle on moral grounds" or "I don't think City Hall should have orgies." One of the worst comments of all was: "I'll vote for the Chinaman before I'd ever vote for the fag" (Adams' opponent was a Japanese-American businessman. Shows how ig'nant a bigot truly is!). Come on, people!!! It's the 21st century now. Leave bigotry and homophobia in the past century.
So, this film truly is an important one for a much marginalized group of people. When are we going to stop demonizing them and blaming them for the breakup of marriages? Gay marriages are inevitable. History always marches towards progress. We might have moments of regressive reactionaries (such as the past eight years), but history continues its march towards greater inclusion. Why be on the wrong side of history? What's wrong with letting people love the people they want to be with?
I expect Milk to be among the Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay nominees come Oscar time. Sean Penn deserves his second Oscar for this role. Anyone who believes in human rights and admires individuals who make a difference in our world to become a more inclusive and tolerant place, this film is worth watching...even if a few scenes are bit uncomfortable to watch. The point is to see "the other" as fully human. Different, perhaps, from the majority, but still worthy of the equal rights we all enjoy. Milk. It does the body politic some good!