Thirty years ago, America was a very different place. Personal computers; cellphones; PDAs; HDTV; digital cameras; the Internet and IMAX were all unheard of. Personally, I was thrilled and amazed to have a Texas Instruments calculator to help me with the math with which I struggled on a daily basis. The acronym LGBT had yet to be invented and a rainbow was a meteorological phenomenon not yet associated with any particular group other than leprechauns and their pots of gold. Stonewall had come and gone, but was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to gay rights.
Then, suddenly, there was this man in San Francisco; a transplanted New Yorker who was tired of being treated as a third-class citizen. A man who decided that enough was enough. Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person in the U.S. to hold a publicly elected office. And then, just as suddenly, he was gone. Murdered (along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone) by fellow City Supervisor Dan White. White went on to claim that junk food had addled his brain and the infamous "Twinkie Defense" was born. I was sixteen years old, terrified that my friends and family would discover that I was gay, and even more horrified to see that one of my idols had been shot in cold blood. I remember thinking, "They really hate us." It would be many years (and much therapy) before I was ready to come out to my family. And even then, it was only to those closest to me.
I cried the day Harvey Milk was murdered, because I thought my last hope at being 'normal' had died with him. Recently, with the defeat of Prop 8 in California (and similar legislations in FL and AZ), I began to feel the same sort of despair. But the community has rallied again. Our voices are being heard. More and more people from all walks of life are decrying the breech of civil rights afforded by Prop 8 and other measures. Prop 8: The Musical is a Viral Video hit and more and more gay celebrities are publicily outing themsleves (while more and more straight celebs are endorsing gay rights as simply Human Rights).
Brokeback Mountain was supposed to be the movie that changed everything for the LGBT community. And for a while, it seemed it might. But even Ang Lee's gorgeous and painful romance couldn't galvanize the country into acceptance. Now comes Gus Van Sant's Milk, and we can all rejoice.
Or can we?
If Milk had been released a month earlier, would it have made a difference in the outcome of the Prop 8 vote? Will it make a difference now? Only time will tell. Rob Epstein's 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk did little (if anything) to sway public opinion. And the traditional "Christian Right" (which is neither, I might add) are certainly doing everything they can to deter people from realizing that being gay is not a choice.
As Milk garners more and more awards and nominations and opens in wider release, will middle-Americans venture to their local cinemas and realize that Harvey was right? Or, like with Brokeback Mountain (a far superior film to that year's Best Picture winner, Crash) will it be an anomaly; a novelty film with limited appeal and in the end, limited impact? I sure hope not.
In any event, Van Sant's fictionalized bioflick sure looks like terrific filmmaking with some of this year's most riveting performances:
More of this, anon.