Saturday, December 27, 2008

You Gotta Give Them Hope

I saw the movie, MILK, last night. I was skeptical at first. I was afraid this was Hollywood once again trying to capitalize on another sensational historic event like the assassination of JFK, Jimmy Hoffa, and the 9/11 tragedy. I was pessimistic because I suspected the straight actors involved were more interested in self-promotion than sincerely portraying this important turning point in the human rights struggle of gay people. You know how they are. Most celebrities will wear any ribbon and support any cause just to get another thirty seconds of publicity, i.e., “save the whales”, “don’t eat meat“, “have your pet spayed or neutered.”

To a certain degree those things were true of this movie. The story is sensational, the roles will get a lot of attention for the cast members, and the topic is a culturally relevant issue in modern current events. However, it still succeeded as a meaningful and entertaining film. I’m glad I saw it and I recommend everyone in the country to see it because you either know a gay person, or you should “get to know” a gay person. The film sets a perfect tempo of mixing shocking archival footage to let the viewer feel the discomfort and shame that gay people feel in our society with just the right amount of humor to remind us to laugh at ourselves and experience the joy of life more than the sorrow of it.

This movie could have easily drifted into the cliché mode with lots of, “Gay Pride” slogans or “I’m here, I’m queer, get over it” quotes. But, the director smartly stayed away from that and replaced it with a more universal theme of, “You gotta give them hope.” While Harvey Milk was a gay city supervisor, he ultimately represented not only gay people, but a constituency of many that were unrepresented by the system, the homeless, elderly, the handicapped. I like that the film’s protagonist was the country’s conformity to the status quo. The idea that injustice is acceptable as long as the majority doesn’t disagree with it was the great obstacle to overcome.

I was a child when these events were being played out in California. I vaguely remember seeing Anita Bryant on TV complaining about the terrible sinners that were destroying our country. I grew up in a religious family so it was not something we talked about. I didn’t understand that I was gay and I didn’t understand that Anita was talking about gay people. The movie did a wonderful job of crystallizing that whole ugly mess. It wasn’t until last night that I, a forty year old man, understood all that Milk and his supporters did to combat such a crusade of bigotry and hate. If I was unaware of it, then I’m sure that people younger than myself knew.

Gay young people today have it so much easier than my generation when it comes to finding acceptance in society. My generation is even finding it easier to be open and honest with our friends and families. Many of us at middle age are beginning to hope that we might have the possibility of a “normal” open and loving relationship during our lifetimes. Much of this is due to the work began by Harvey Milk and his supporters. If nothing else, this movie is important because it has made us aware of that.

The movie also makes us aware of some missteps taken by the “gay rights” movement. I was unaware that it was Harvey Milk that started his speeches with the words, “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.” While those of us with a bit of intelligence understand that he was “recruiting” people to support his cause of human rights and social justice, the homophobic extremophiles insisted that he was recruiting wholesome heterosexual young men to become homosexual. There has not been any more damaging concept about gay people than that we are not born gay but that we recruit, teach, and train innocent, vulnerable straight people to be one of us. The idea that gay people have the magical powers to convert heterosexuals into something they are not has been deadly.

The villainous character, Dan White, was expertly portrayed by Josh Brolin. The writers and director designed the character to represent everything that is still oppressing gay people. Dan White was a charming, attractive face that masked a deep underlying evil of hatred and intolerance based on moral superiority and religious intolerance. Dan White represented everything that we Americans love in a man. He was a fireman, a police officer, he was heroic. He was a masculine and attractive, religious family man. He was an ignorant and incompetent public official who was elected based on his many appealing superficial qualities. When those pitiful charms failed to help him accomplish his meaningless agenda, he reverted to the violent animal that he truly was. Perhaps this portrayal by Brolin will help some people re-evaluate what they consider to be the marks of a “real man.”

MILK is a great movie. I can’t encourage you to go see it quickly enough.

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