Bernard Goyer reviews Milk – a powerful film about the life of politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

Milk is a powerful film about the life of politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Starting tensely, with archive footage of police violence, the audience is immediately informed of Milk’s death in 1978.

It’s a sign of the strength of Sean Penn’s Oscar winning performance that this knowledge doesn’t detract from the tension and poignancy of this film. We are reminded us just how oppressive and ghastly it was to be gay in 1960s and ‘70s America, where homophobic murders went unpunished and the police beat gays to pulp on the pavements of America.

Into this environment of fear and hatred step Harvey and his boyfriend Scott, who in a memorable opening scene embrace in the street under a shop sign stating “we are OPEN”. This sets the key theme of the film: being proud of being gay.

The film lucidly presents the way Harvey Milk’s crusade for justice, acceptance and equal rights challenged the rising homophobia in US society head on, through united protest, direct action and electoral success.

Its also quite funny, in a pleasingly ironic way- Milk starts his d√©but speech to a typical ‘70s San Francisco street corner, “My fellow degenerates…”

Sean Penn excels as Milk under Gus Van Sant’s direction. Milk’s campness is never overplayed, meaning that his flashes of flamboyance are received tenderly by the viewer rather than as a pastiche of well worn stereotypes.

The most memorable supporting performances are Emile Hirsch as the nihilist turned activist Cleve Jones and the smoothly menacing portrayal of Milk’s conservative opponent Dan White by Josh Brolin. Brolin does drunk or angry like Sean Penn acts camp- subtly and understated.

This is an intelligent film in its expectations on the viewer, a trademark of Van Sant, who came to Hollywood prominence with the seminal Good Will Hunting. For instance, the complexities of San Francisco local politics are not avoided. Milk’s abilities in the grubby world of city politics, symbolised by his picking up dog-poo in a publicity campaign, shine through.

This brings us to the most relevant aspect of the film for any activist- its latent awareness that political change comes through believing in the impossible and then acting as a social movement to make it possible. The film reminds us just how strong the reactionary backlash to homosexuality was during the late 1970s. In our parents lifetimes, led by Milk’s acidic nemesis Anita Bryant, gay rights laws were starting to be turned back in the USA in referendums sponsored by evangelical fundamentalists.

Milk’s bravery against this threat is typified by a death threat he receives in a later scene of the film, warning him that he will shot if he speaks on the platform to thousands of activists. The Oscar winning script constantly reminds the audience of the likelihood of the hero’s assassination, by narrating the film through an audiotape, to be played in the event of Milk’s death.

As with any great revolutionary, from Martin Luther King to Che Guevara, Milk saw his own life as subordinate to the success of the movement.

What any group of people committed to securing justice can learn from this film is that progressive forces can succeed against extraordinary odds if they are brave enough, organised enough and have no qualms about playing the media, becoming the narrative, rather then reacting to it.

For Counterfire this has particular relevance to ending the hegemony that Islamophobia currently has in our society in tabloid media; but the biggest battle of all is the urgent need to reform and restrain the grip that the unsustainable pursuit of profit for its own sake has over society- in Milk Sean Penn presents with shy charisma a character that understands, like an omnipotent King Canute, that when the political tide is going away from you, it is the perfect opportunity to strike back.

This is a lesson that, as the social recession from public spending cuts bites home, activists everywhere can learn from.