Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Night at the Movies: Milk

I went with some friends to see Milk last night. And as much as I get frustrated by the conservatism here, I must say that I was impressed to see how many people were seeing Milk last night. And they laughed at the jokes, and looked somber at the end.

The first thing I want to say about the movie is that I'm really glad it got made. And boy oh boy is Sean Penn superb.

Really, it's a good movie. It brings back some of the feel of the late 70s without being all in your face about doing techy stuff. The old images of folks like Carter and Jerry Brown worked well with the modern film stuff; they didn't clash like they do with some film because the colors feel really different or something.

So go see it.

I do have a couple of issues. The film momentarily noticed the sexism (especially against Lesbians) and racism of the gay movement in the 70s (at least as it played out in the Bay Area), but didn't critique those in a meaningful way. And they both deserve critique and examination. I get that doing lots with a critique would take away from the time devoted to something else, but I think it's important.

Tied to that was the representation of Jack. He was played in a really over-the-top way, and that representation fits all too tightly in with the ways white culture portrays Latino males as overly emotional, needy, and so forth. So that left my crowd wondering if the movie was just being orientalist, or if it was trying to make a point (was that supposed to be sort of how Jack looked to the "good boy" white males), or if a historical Jack really fit the stereotypes so bizarrely.

And where the heck was Diane Feinstein? Seriously. I mean, they showed her from afar once, and we heard her voice from offscreen, but you wouldn't know that she was coming up in party and as a supervisor.

Seeing Milk made me think about some "what ifs." I'm guessing, within the "what ifs" that Diane Feinstein wouldn't be a senator now if she hadn't become mayor after Moscone's assassination.

Seeing a representation of the gay male community in the late 70s made me think about HIV/AIDS. How much further would we be if we hadn't had to spend so much energy and time, and if we hadn't lost so many people to HIV/AIDS? It's rather horrifying to think, especially since California Prop 8 passed last November.

On the other hand, the lesbian reaction to HIV/AIDS had a lot to do with the gay male community's increasing acceptance. Without HIV/AIDS and Lesbians coming out to support and care for men, would we have found common ground? (If you think about it, there's no "natural" common ground, given that a lot of homophobia is scared of male penetration and that makes men a bigger target, while lesbians have less economic power, less political power, and face different challenges. We used to come together over fewer issues, with lesbians being secondary. Has that really changed that much?)

Within the film, there's one lesbian character, Milk's campaign manager, who is accepted grudgingly by Milk's close followers (at least at first).

It's as if lesbians can only be accepted so long as we're serving men and taking care of them, both in the film and historically. I don't think that's changed a whole lot in the past 30 years, but it needs to change, and we'd better not have to wait 30 more years.


  1. i haven't even seen the film yet, and think i will tomorrow, because there is so much there.

    the sexism and racism was definitely there in the late '70's and beyond, even in san francisco, and even within the groups fighting for human rights for non-heterosexuals. i went to law school 1.5 blocks from where milk and moscone were killed, and started just a few months after that happened.

    there isn't any "what if" about dianne feinstein: she would never have been tested, would never have risen to higher office, if she had not had to become mayor at a devastating time. i have many disagreements with her on various issues. but the fact is, she rose to the occasion.

    i may be less than impartial, because when she invited the entire city to her wedding reception -- i went, on a break from exams. and so did the glitterati, and so did the homeless people, and everyone in between. we all were treated to lovely food and music, in the marble rotunda of city hall. i don't think i'll ever forget that. it probably can't ever happen again, which is a shame.

  2. although -- those glorious and many gay and lesbian weddings some years ago, in the same fabulous marble rotunda of SF city hall, were as close to heaven as anyone could wish.

  3. Thank you very much for your analysis: your "issues" coincide with mine, and you're much more eloquent.

    Makes me think of Suzanne Pharr's Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, a serious important work, and of the blog "I Blame the Patriarchy" (, a smarty pants serious work.

  4. Kathy a, I think you're probably right about Feinstein. I was long gone by the time she did most of her mayoring.

    Thanks, Julie. I adore Twisty Faster. If I had half her wit and intelligence, I'd be WAY sharper!