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Milk’s career

Gus Van Sant’s Milk is here to recruit you. While most who go to see this film starring Sean Penn will only be familiar with the story as a result of the advertising campaign which highlights Milk’s career as a gay activist, the film reveals that Harvey Milk was actually an activist for the oppressed everywhere. The fact that Van Sant wants to highlight this aspect of Milk in his attempt to bring the slain leader’s story into the consciousness of the mainstream even plays a part in the cinematic construction of the film.

Gus Van Sant has staked his career on quirky independent films that reject many mainstream appeals, yet turns Milk into a biopic that fits squarely within the conventions of that genre. At first it may be tempting to criticize Van Sant for rejecting his legacy as a fiercely independent filmmaker, but rather than attacking Milk for being just as mainstream as, say, Oliver Stone’s W. , Van Sant should be lauded.

The story of Harvey Milk is an important one, and his fight against stripping anyone of basic constitutional rights and liberties is just as relevant now as ever. Sean Penn taps into the charisma that a guy like Harvey Milk obviously needed and creates a character whom only the most homophobic of moviegoers could resist. It is incredibly easy to step back in time to the anything-goes 1970s of San Francisco and latch onto the excitement generated within the gay community by Harvey Milk.

And yet, it is also very understandable watching the brilliantly realized use of actual archival footage of leading anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant to understand how so many could, and do, feel no compunction whatever about trying to strip away basic human rights from people just because they happen to be homosexual. Dan White, the man who would eventually murder Harvey Milk and who is played to antagonistic perfection by Josh Brolin, is the personification of the mindset of Anita Bryant in the outward guise of an actual human being.

While Bryant’s rants go over the edge, her basic message comes across as far less dangerous in the person of Dan White. The irony is pointed and brutally important: the lunatic fringe represented by Bryant does not lift the gun and kill Harvey Milk in cold blood. Milk is the epitome of the radical counterculture that threatens the conservative ideology and stability represented by Dan White. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the discomfort many people feel toward the idea of homosexuality, but neither do the love scenes linger too graphically upon this concept.

The idea that Van Sant is shooting for is as mainstream as the style of the film: progress does not come about within the center of the political spectrum, but rather requires the radical extremes. Interestingly, the radical extremes in Milk are represented by Harvey and Anita Bryant. The center is represented by Dan White and the greatest irony of the film is that the most radical act is committed by him. But within that radical act lies another great irony: Dan White is far more representative of the mainstream than even those cheering on the efforts of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk explicitly champions the rights of gays in the film, but he stands for movements that have championed such radical causes as ending slavery and granting voting rights to women. When Dan White straps a gun to himself and climbs into that window at San Francisco’s City Hall and seeks to kill Milk and Mayor Moscone, he is not there to be seen simply as a killer of a representative of the gay rights movement, he is an emblem of the vain struggle to beat back the unstoppable progress of freedom and human rights everywhere.

By taking a more mainstream approach and populating the film with mainstream actors like Penn, Brolin, and Spiderman’s James Franco, Van Sant succeeds in transforming Harvey Milk from the radical activist he was into a mainstream rebel with a cause far more expansive than the advertising suggests. Milk is here to recruit new activists into the mainstream with the charge to give every oppressed group the hope that one day they, too, shall overcome.

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