Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Milk ... morality and marginalisation

Poster for the film Milk

Last time I’d seen the Curzon Soho so packed, Ingmar Bergman had just died, and the screen filled up with people wanting to see The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet) which had been recently remastered and was coincidentally showing in the art house cinema.

With Sunday night’s (or was that Monday morning in Europe?) Oscar wins for Milk and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the Curzon Soho was doing better than average for Monday night, with both films currently showing this week. By the time the main feature started, more than 50 people had come in to see Milk.

Is Hollywood changing? Is it losing its old homophobic ways?

The film Brokeback Mountain seemed to bring a more open spirit to the US film world, and a willingness to talk about sexuality. Who’d have guessed five year’s ago that Sean Penn would play the part of Harvey Milk, a gay activist and politician in the 1970s? Acting a role that would include kissing another man on screen? A role that would be celebrated with an Oscar for Best Actor.

Interspersed with newsreel footage showing the real events in the area, Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk running away to San Francisco’s Castro district with his new lover to start living life out of the closet (at least in part). In the face of prejudice he faces up to his beliefs and swells in confidence, turning to community activism to fight the oppression he sees in the area in which he lives. He asks why the local police are persecuting minorities rather than protecting them.

And from community activism, it was only a small step to the world of politics, running with union support but failing to get elected for City Supervisor (an elected position) three times before the boundaries and voting rules changed and he finally won in 1977 and was sworn in on 9 January 1978. An opportunity to champion legislation that can protect the working rights of minorities.

Sean Penn starring as Harvey Milk in the film Milk

But while his section of town is willing to elect him to office, the state senate politician John Briggs is following the lead of Anita Byrant and the Christian right who want to repeal the rights legislation and sack teachers who are gay or even support gays. Even though upcoming leaders like Ronald Reagan didn’t support the repeal, state after state tore up the legislation. Would the threat of discrimination unite the Bay area community or fragment it?

It’s a film that doesn’t lay on the emotion with a trowel. And doesn’t burden the story with over atmospheric tension. No haunting soundtracks or heart beat rhythms. In fact the soundtrack occasionally exhibits a sense of humour of its own - look out for the well-placed hoot after a particularly crass joke, and the phone ringing accompaniment.

Yet the film highlights the repercussions of anti-gay (or any kind of anti-minority) sentiment. Suicide is a refuge for the scared and the lonely. Watching the film, it struck me strongly that if any organisation or group - and I’d include the Christian church - is found encouraging people to stay hidden away, hiding concealing their emotions and intimidated by righteous belief, then they have a lot to answer for. (And by "encouraging" I also mean "making it uncomfortable to do otherwise".) Whatever the personal or social morality, personal and community identity shouldn't be squashed. Suddenly last year’s proposal that Christians quietly march as part of the Belfast Gay Pride parade to show support and intentionally disown any attempt by others to intimidate the LGBT community made a lot more sense and didn’t see as fraught a suggestion as it did at the time.

“40 years old and I haven’t done a thing I’m proud of.”

But by the age of 48, Milk had changed attitudes in San Francisco. Not everyone was recruited to his cause and his plea for dignity and equality. But enough to start making a difference. 48 years old, and thousands turned out to a vigil for his violent death. Proud of what he’d achieved.

Are we proud of how we treat those different from ourselves? Am I? Are you? Whether it’s gender, colour, sexuality, age, language, accent, wealth, education, disability … creating ghettos and marginalising people’s identity isn’t smart. And it doesn’t show a whole lot of love. Go and see Milk and think about what you see. After all, milk is good for everyone!


Alan in Belfast said...

By the way ... Vicky Cristina Barcelona is on at the QFT until Thursday 26th Feb. Also on at the Storm/Odyssey until Thursday 26. And Lisburn Omniplex has it too.

Milk stopped showing at the QFT a couple of weeks ago. Can't see it listed anywhere now in NI.

Sharon said...

Hi Alan. Thanks for writing this. It's a great post.

I won't be able to see either of these films until the come out on DVD but I look forward to that.

Flippin' Yank said...

Great post! As a native San Franciscan, I can say you've captured the essence of what we as San Franciscans are proud of; standing up for what is right in order to protect rights of all people and preserving the city's diversity!

On the flipside of the coin...the LGBT community is still fighting the ban on gay marriage. A referendum on Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to recognize marriage as between man and woman only. It passed last November and in response there have been violent protests for the California Supreme Court to annul the referendum.

No doubt this movie is being used as a platform to bring gay rights to light again, it was mentioned at the Oscars. Penn also called on President Obama to modify his position on gay marriage.

So the work is still not done. Harvey Milk was just the beginning.

Russell McQuillan said...

Great post Alan and a great film...... I had no idea ! Very Educational