One of the reasons that Proposition 8 passed in California was a lack of organization by its opponents. In fact, gay rights activists have done a much better job protesting the outcome of the Nov. 4 vote than they did protesting the ballot before it was voted on.

Milk premieres tonight on HBO.
Milk premieres tonight on HBO.

Perhaps they could have taken cues from Gus Van Sant’s latest biopic Milk, a film as much about the gay rights movement as it is about title character Harvey Milk. That may be because Milk and the gay rights movement are so intertwined.

Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco from New York in the seventies, seeking refuge from discrimination and misunderstanding and a place where he could build a community that was both tolerant and proactive for gay rights.

That community turned out to be the famous Castro district of San Francisco, a neighborhood still very much defined by a large LGBTA population. Milk settled into the neighborhood, opened a business and then proceeded to launch political campaigns, running for vacant seats on the city council and state assembly.

The role of Harvey Milk is played to perfection by Sean Penn, who captures the nuances and quirks that Milk was known for. But the true appeal of the film stems from the ensemble cast. James Franco and Diego Luna take turns as Milk’s lovers, both delivering inspired performances. Emile Hirsch, the apparent understudy of Sean Penn, joins Alison Pill, Lucas Grabeel and a half dozen others as the campaign staff for Milk’s political bids.

And then of course there’s Josh Brolin, who adds tension and suspense to the role of Assemblyman Dan White. Anyone familiar with the story of Harvey Milk knows how White fits into this whole equation, yet Brolin is able to capture the viewer’s attention and make him question what he thought he knew.

Van Sant gives the movie the feel of a documentary, making use of old footage and occasional shots with a handheld camera. Van Sant is less concerned with the life story of Harvey Milk as he is about the legacy and impact that his life had. Milk is defined in the movie through his actions, not so much by his life story. A police roundup of homosexuals at a bar one night sends Milk to the streets, taking up position atop a plastic crate to calm down residents. A Teamsters boycott of Coors beer leads Milk to craft a surprising alliance between one of the largest unions and the gay community. And continual discrimination leads Milk to run for office several times before he finally manages to secure enough votes.

Watching the movie after the historic elections in 2008 is especially rewarding. It takes very little effort to draw historical comparisons between the film and what transpired both nationally and in California. Thirty years before Proposition 8, there was Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative that would have banned gay men and women from teaching in public schools. Thirty years before Barack Obama became the first black president, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

Go see this movie for entertainment. But watch this movie for the lesson it teaches us.

Milk is available now on DVD, and will begin airing on HBO starting tonight.

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