Director Gus Van Zant brings us San Francisco in the 1970’s, but it is Sean Penn, in the role of Harvey Milk, who makes the visit compelling.  We can’t take our eyes off him.  And so we are drawn into his world, and his cause, and we breathe in the tragedy of his untimely death, which is announced at the beginning.  As a kind of intentional foreshadowing.
            Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1970, celebrating his 40th birthday with a stranger named Scott (James Franco) whom he picked up on a subway platform.  It hadn’t been easy, growing up gay in America .  Harvey mentions to Scott that he hasn’t yet done anything that he was proud of, but despite a late start, Harvey starts making up for lost time.  First he opens a camera shop, where gays are encouraged to not only be customers, but just have a place to “hang out.”  Soon, the neighborhood started changing dramatically, as gay men found a place they could be comfortable and accepted, and soon the whole city of San Francisco became known as a place where gays at least wouldn’t be shunned and persecuted.  But Harvey Milk felt that despite the popularity of his business, the gay community still did not have a voice in the city government.  And so he decided to run for Supervisor, at first just standing on a street corner with a megaphone and a soapbox.  He would always begin his speeches with “I’m Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.”  He spoke passionately about the need to de-criminalize gays, and though he lost several of those initial elections, he kept gaining ground among the populace.  After several years of tireless campaigning, finally, he was elected, partly because he had made inroads into the “straight” community, and partly because the time was right.  The cultural climate had changed.  Now there were plenty of people willing to fight for gay rights who weren’t gay themselves, but simply believed it was the right thing to do.
            Van Zant doesn’t present us with a saintly view of Milk and his constant entourage.  Milk had more than one “significant other” during this time, and the difficulties with his personal life would sometimes jeopardize his carefully-constructed public persona as the responsible leader of a law-abiding constituency.   But Milk’s excellent political instincts, and charismatic presence, helped propel him to groundbreaking accomplishments.  He was the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in America .  The whole country was watching, as he carefully constructed his platform to include meeting the needs of other ignored constituencies:  minorities, the handicapped, the elderly.  Once elected to the Board of Supervisors, he was constantly clashing with the “family values” right-wing, led by fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).  Milk at first tried to befriend White, then tried negotiating, but White was interested only in trying to maneuver Milk into an unpopular misstep, like encouraging him to advocate for pay raises for themselves.  Milk was smarter than that.  He also realized that the more the “far right” tried to fight against the civil rights of gays (like California ’s Proposition 6, which would have allowed the firing of any gay teacher in the public school system), the more he could count on the indignation, and subsequent support, of many in the “straight” community.  He made an ally of San Francisco ’s Mayor in just this way.   It was yet another irony to the tragedy that White, frustrated by his eroding influence, abruptly resigned, then tried to demand that the Mayor re-instate him.  When the Mayor refused, White killed him, then marched into Milk’s office and killed him, too.
Soon after, upwards of 30,000 marched down Market Street at night, parading in a candlelight commemoration.  That’s how much Harvey Milk had touched a whole city, with his tireless advocacy for the enfranchisement of “people like him.” 
            Sean Penn manages to walk the tightrope between the off-putting flaming and flamboyant, and the so subtle and subdued as to be indiscernible.  He is not afraid to show affection, though no doubt there are still many audiences that will be uncomfortable with gay men kissing each other passionately in a “mainline” film on the big screen.  The homosexual community’s promiscuity is acknowledged, even the marijuana usage.  But it wasn’t just about partying with abandon any more.  This was about serious local politics, and he needed for the people around him to focus on the long haul, including his energetic advisor Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and his lesbian campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who challenged the gay men to expand their own advocacy.  (“Does anybody here like women?”)
            “Milk” is the kind of movie that chronicles an era, in a way that some who didn’t live through it will find incredulous (could Anita Bryant really lead a whole country into blatant discrimination?).  While not “entertaining” in the Hollywood-magic way of special effects, computer-generated images, fiery crashes, and blood-pumping chase scenes, it is quietly engaging, even mesmerizing.  There are many who will not avail themselves of the opportunity to see it, because of a perceived low “entertainment” value.  But this is a moving film, propelled by a powerful performance.
Questions For Discussion:
1)      What is the current situation of gay rights in our culture?
2)      What is the current situation of gay rights in the church?
3)      What is the current situation of gay rights in your community?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas