Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Super Delegates: Harvey Milk in "Milk" (2008)

Scene from Milk
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: November 26, 2008
Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch
Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score
-Best Editing
Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Actor (Sean Penn)
-Best Original Screenplay
Delegates in Question:
-Harvey Milk

It is difficult to really argue how much society has evolved since 2008 in regards to LGBT rights. On the one hand, tolerance has become more accepted, where even gay marriage is now the law of the land. However, there's still persecution faced with the changing tides. As the news will be quick to point out, there are figures like Kim Davis, North Carolina, and most recently the superstore chain Target who became headline-grabbing names for their views on the issue. Even in recent Academy Awards history, LGBT films haven't quite made that big of an impression on voters with last year's gay-themed films like The Danish Girl and Carol missing the coveted Best Picture nomination. Still, society has evolved quite impressively in only eight years. Just look at director Gus Van Sant's Harvey Milk biopic Milk, which chronicles the career of the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco, California. If you thought things were rough in 2008, just go back to the late 70's when the real life Milk made a stir.

What is possibly the most interesting thing about Milk is how relevant it felt to the moment. While by no means a box office smash, its choice to show gay rights activists fighting for equality seemed to parallel California's Proposition 8, which managed to outlaw gay marital statuses. In the time since, things have changed. However, it still reflected a culture that was adjusting to gays being human. Much like a few years prior when Ernest Borgnine infamously campaigned against Brokeback Mountain for desecrating the cowboy mythology, the society in the 1970's and 2008 shared enough similarities to make Milk's story seem more than timely despite having died 30 years prior. When Milk (played by Sean Penn) goes into public debates to discuss how gay parents don't necessarily "corrupt" children into being gay, there's a sense that these questions are still being asked, even by our presidential candidates.

At its core, it does have a familiar biopic set-up. We see Milk become a politician and have an intimate relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco). We see the persecution and even get those inspirational lines that every biopic needs, specifically "Never blend in." It also features the tragic fall caused by Dan White (Josh Brolin) and his homophobic desire to shoot Milk. If judged solely by standards of how it breaks the bank, it doesn't do it too much. However, Van Sant's aesthetic picks up a lot of the slack as he incorporates old news footage to help make the San Francisco of the 1970's feel more real. He films Milk's assured speeches with a certain passion that goes back to the best of classic film making. He makes you root for Milk from the beginning, and that at its core is what works. It's sympathetic without making Milk solely into the justified hero of the hour. Along with Dustin Lance Black's provocative script, the subjects are explored with depth and purpose in a way that adds weight to the finale.

Of course, some credit must be paid to Penn, who embodied the role by adding all of the small tics and nuances that made the real life Milk so authentic. There's a power to watching him swing his arm and talk with that accent. He commands the screen in ways that may be difficult if you bring in his personal life. Penn the person does have his share of anger issues and political enemies that make him not necessarily pleasant to be around. However, there's still room for him to surprise you as an actor, especially when he gives his all to a performance so magnetic and lively. Milk isn't important because of the subject. It's important because it addresses it with such a fervor and sympathy towards Milk that you forget that you're watching Penn. Thankfully, it's also an exceptional supporting cast that brings the activism to life. It's in the smaller moments that you inevitably begin to understand the socially maligned characters as being actually just humans with the same personal dreams as the rest of the world.

Comparatively to the other major 2000's LGBT film Brokeback Mountain, Milk hasn't necessarily had the most noteworthy legacy. Yes, the themes are still relevant and it's by no means a bad movie. However, it seems to be a misnomer in the world of Best Picture, especially since there have only been three gay-themed movies nominated in the years since (none since 2014). Is it because the themes have become irrelevant whereas Ang Lee's love story still feels poignant? Far from the truth. While Milk isn't quite as intimate or powerful by fact of being a biopic, its decision to implicitly ask audiences to sympathize and support gay rights feels arguably more important. Later films like Pride would expand upon this with feel good subtext that avoids the tragic trend of "dead homosexual" that expands back to the very beginning. Of course while this is still problematic (even for Brokeback Mountain), Milk can at least suggest that it actually happened and that Milk's status as a martyr is one that has resonated throughout history.

What exactly can Harvey Milk's career suggest for the modern era? As stated, its release felt like it received free press from the Prop 8 rallies that populated California during the period. Of course, the biggest difference really is size and tolerance of culture since. Where Milk stood with a small group in the 1970's, the Prop 8 rally group reflected a growing defense that has only continued to expand across the United States. Even in 2015, the presence of LGBT activists feels even more prominent with many being quick to protest the unjust laws. When Kim Davis notoriously refused a marriage license to a gay couple, she was met with a specific persecution that caused her to unironically admit that she felt bad that people were making fun of her for her beliefs. While the lesson was lost on her, it was evident of how much culture still has its mind set in traditional ways. With North Carolina laws involving transgender citizens and bathrooms currently causing stirs, the quest for equal rights is far from being 50/50. However, the impact of Milk likely rings in every person who stands against a bigot and strives for a better future. 

While there have been gay presidents (James Buchanan), most of the gay politicians are stuck on city and state positions. While President Obama has made strides to make their careers easier, there's little room here to assess gay rights from a presidential standpoint. Of course, Milk feels like a film from the George W. Bush era, where things were far less tolerant and comedians still could get away with effeminate impersonations. In that sense, the film is a relic of a less appreciative culture. In a time where the next battle is about transgender rights, the astigmatism of being gay is not quite as "vulgar" as it used to be. Yes, it's not quite as appreciated in mainstream society as the tried and true, but the dialogue has definitely improved in ways that suggest that maybe the world won't be so bad.

The impact of Harvey Milk will likely outlive the impact of Milk. However, it isn't quite to the dated point that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with its racial discussion is just yet. However, there has to be a bigger reason that the film isn't discussed with as much reverence as Brokeback Mountain. Could it be that its familiarity as a biopic undermines its stinging text? Maybe it's that Black, Van Sant, and Penn all haven't had the most stellar careers since. However, it's still a film that will continue to hold power, at least until society evolves past it. Considering that Milk's death is approaching 40 years and he still feels important, it unfortunately may not be soon. Even then, it's important to know one man's activism to make the world more tolerant, and that may be Milk's lasting legacy.

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