Monday, December 08, 2008
The Hokey-Pokey of Civil Rights
As a straight woman with several close gay friends, I have always been a fervent supporter of gay rights. In high school, I stood by them at the gay pride parade in Atlanta and I've been a member of the Human Rights Campaign since I was seventeen years old. But the struggle for gay rights is more than a personal issue: it is an issue of life and death for many Americans. The right to live their lives in the open.
Gus van Sant has made a loving biopic for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. After a decade long attempt to be elected, Milk finally won the post of San Francisco Supervisor in 1977. In 1978, he was murdered in cold blood while at work by his colleague, Dan White.
This film is absolutely chock-full of outstanding performances by Sean Penn, perhaps one of America's most-talented, seasoned actors, and some very exciting newcomers. Penn never ceases to amaze me with courage in playing stretch-characters: a mentally-handicapped man in I Am Sam, a grief-crazed father in Mystic River, a crazy-dude in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Mr. Penn has a reputation in his personal life as a hot-head and a bad boy, but I like to think his complex career choices as of late might be a form of therapy for working through some of his demons. His portrayal of Harvey Milk is warm, brave, and brimming with life.
You may remember uber-cutie Emile Hirsch from Into the Wild, but he's altogether unrecognizable in this film as a young man named Cleve Jones who joins Milk's campaign. Jones would go on to found the AIDS quilt and Hirsch does a fantastic job of communicating his boundless energy and mirth, although I couldn't help but think that Dov Charney must have based American Apparel's hoodies and big hipster glasses on the fashion stylings of Mr. Cleve Jones. And then there's Alison Pill, broadway superstar, as the lesbian campaign manager who has to prove her skills when she takes over midway through Harvey's run for supervisor. The part's too small to showcase Pill's talents, but her grief over Milk's death at the end of the film tugged at my heartstrings.
While James Franco does an admirable job of looking pissed off and tired as Milk's longtime boyfriend Scott Smith, his performance is rather forgettable, and his pretty face makes any sort of serious brooding a bit impossible. It's not his fault, but I'm not sure what he's doing in this film.
Milk is perhaps van Sant's most sentimental, most Hollywood-venture to date. The dialogue feels forced and there are moments of indulgence where I wished there had been restraint. But that said, Milk is still an important film. While in office, Harvey Milk campaigned in California for the demise of Proposition 6, or the Briggs Initiative, a law that would have banned gays and lesbians (and anyone who supported them) from teaching in public schools. Prop 6, thanks to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his team, was defeated on November 7, 1978. In the film, it is a moment of pure triumph. It reminded me of the mood on November 4, 2008.
November 4th was an incredible day in American history. I will never forget the endless celebration and relief upon learning that Barack Obama had been elected President. In that moment, so much felt possible, as if the pursuit of happiness and freedom had finally been realized since the past eight years of emotional and literal terrorism, hatred, and ignorance of the Bush administration. But I was deeply saddened, as were many of my Californian friends, to learn that Proposition 8 had passed, denying gay couples the right to marry and invalidating those marriages that had been legal in the state until then.
While I understand the argument that many gay couples make that marriage is a heterosexual institution that they don't necessarily want, I believe it should be an option. It should be an option for any longterm committed couple to make their partnership legal and known to the state, that their partnership should afford them the same rights that mine would if I chose to marry. And to say that they are married. That they are husband and husband, wife and wife. If straight couples have the right to be legally married in this country, every couple should have that right. It is a human, undeniable right.
In many ways we have come a long way from the time of Harvey Milk. But just as Harvey's victory of Prop 6 was blighted by his assassination, I can't help but feel as if they election of Obama was blighted by the victory of Prop 8. I can only hope that with the new year, come January 20th, America will have entered into a new period of diplomacy and the pursuit of civil rights for every single citizen: which means healthcare, employment, and yes, happiness. It's really the only way.