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Harvey Milk Deserved A Better Film Than Van Sant's Low-fat Biopic

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Cross-posted from Daily Kos

Harvey Milk deserved a better film than this.

Director Gus Van Sant's hagiography remains true to the facts of its subject's life while backing away from invoking the full-on, living color injustice, violence, passion, nerve, and sheer scruffy grassroots rage that fueled Milk and the emerging post-Stonewall Gay liberation movement.

Not that it doesn't try, kind of. All the right things happen, plot-wise -- a formerly closeted Milk starts a new, out life in 70s-era San Francisco with his hunky younger boyfriend; the hostility of neighboring Irish businesses in the Castro district where they settle, plus the alternating bullying and neglect of the SF Police Department, stir Milk to run for office. There's the requisite hate crime scene, plus allusions to gay teens being forced out of their homes and into the streets of the nearest big city by homophobic parents and classmates.

Yet Milk is curiously placid and sterile, even prudish. We never see more than a tablespoon of blood at a time. The 10-second sex scene we only partially see in a dark bedroom between Milk and a boyfriend is all slap and tickle. And every character, including the runaway teen Milk befriends -- Cleve Jones, who survives by turning tricks on the notoriously seedy and dangerous (though never depicted) Polk Street -- looks freshly showered and dressed by the Gap.

Even violent scenes are gloved. Though the camera pulls back to a wide screen view when gays riot against police randomly raiding bars along Castro Street and beating patrons, we never see a cop actually strike anyone, just a lot of carefully choreographed wrestling followed by a scene of Milk dabbing at a small patch of blood on his boyfriend's head. Later, when Milk directs Jones to gather a mob and march them to City Hall after one of Anita Bryant's victories (so Milk can show up to act as peacemaker in front of the press), we get another distant shot of a faceless, strangely lethargic crowd. Even the candlelight march after Milk's assassination seems less mournful than bovine. (Van Sant ends his film before the White Night riots, where queers burned police cars after the lenient sentencing of Milk's murderer.)

Bitch, I've seen queers more fired up when Bed Bath & Beyond runs out of sale items. Where's the passion?

Was Van Sant afraid that audiences wouldn't be sympathetic if 70s-era gay activists were people who suffered, swore, fought back, and fucked like they meant it? If the street kids actually looked like dirty, starving, broke-ass teen hustlers?

Gay history -- unedited -- is ugly, angry, and violent. It's police dragging us out of cellar bars and down to the station to gang fuck the femmes and face-rape the butches, queens, and trannies. It's military witch hunts; suicides and "experimental therapies," from lobotomies and electro-shock to Christian boot camps. It's Stonewall, where we showered raiding police with bottles, locked them in the bar, and set it afire. It's ACT UP and chaining ourselves to pharmaceutical companies' fences to protest AIDS drugs price gouging.

Van Sant's gentrified Milk reflects gay activism's increasingly apologetic tone. We don't always need to be burning police cars to prove our cred, but we shouldn't be inviting homophobes to the table, then singing their praises if they don't spit on us. It's not about hugging Rick Warren and being satisfied that at least he's being nice about denying us our civil rights. Politeness has become homophobia's most popular mask.

Ultimately I'm glad that even this pasteurized, homogenized Milk is out there. Audiences need to see the film's opening sequence -- silent archival footage depicting police bar raids from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, with men shielding their faces from the cameras even as they are shoved into vans, handcuffed, or held in waiting rooms. I want fresh salt poured on the wounds of Proposition 8 so that queers will stop apologizing for being angry with the Mormon and Catholic Church, and for boycotting supporters. I want fresh rage directed at Barack Obama for thinking that including a gay marching band in his inauguration proceedings compensates for his having invited a notorious homophobe and anti-Semite to give the invocation.

But I'm not sure that this low-fat film will really help audience get Milk. And I'm sorry that Van Sant didn't think we could handle the truth.