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Courtesy of Focus Features


New DVD offers a fascinating study of an activist-icon and the early struggle for gay rights

By Lee Simpson

Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin
(Focus Features)

Whether you saw Milk when it first came out, after Sean Penn took home his Oscar for best actor, or have been waiting until now to see it on DVD, the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., is a fascinating study into an unsinkably optimistic yet darkly complex icon of 1970s San Francisco.

Inventive set-design, costuming and interwoven archival footage add up to convincing authenticity. And as counterpoint to Penn’s portrayal of an irrepressible activist, Josh Brolin is brilliant as Dan White, Milk’s torn and troubled adversary on the city’s Board of Supervisors. But it may be the behind-the-scenes vignettes that ultimately make this movie so watchable.

They help us understand the tensions of a neighbourhood that goes from shabby to gay-chic under the noses of local shop-owners. We feel for the closeted homosexual elite terrified by the in-your-face tactics of a new generation of totally “out” gay men. We witness a nuanced portrait of depression, suicide and sexual excess — all the sad side effects of secrecy. We hear the first notes of the overture to the plague of AIDS. We smell the corruption of an old-style municipal political machine: an old boys’ network desperately defending its turf against a tide of demanding new players.

We know how the story ends from the opening scene. Yet the moment the shot is fired remains both tragic and deplorable. It is the end of many hopes and dreams — and the real beginning of the struggle for gay rights.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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