In 1993 Hollywood produced the movie Philadelphia. It was a film about Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a gay lawyer at a prestigious law firm, who was wrongfully dismissed because he has AIDS. The story follows his journey and that of his homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington) as they struggle against Beckett’s former employers for compensation. The movie was generally considered excellent. In my opinion, however, it had several flaws. Philadelphia was a movie about gays that had almost no gay content. It stepped carefully away from the topic of homosexual intimacy, presenting Andy and his partner (Antonio Banderas) as completely asexual, and their relationship as something secretive. Add to this the fact that Andy has a terminal illness and you end up with a movie that gives a picture of the gay lifestyle which is both dark and sad.
Milk, released in 2008, completely blows the doors off Hollywood’s cinematic closet. The film tells the true story of the life and times of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, and his crusade to ensure that uncloseted homosexuals were treated with respect and dignity in American society. Unlike Philadelphia, Milk is an up-beat film, and is more about hope and resistance than it is about resignation and death. The characters are more colourful, flawed and humourous, and the backdrop of post-Stonewall San Francisco makes the film infinitely more exciting than the grey world of Becketts’s death-watch.
Sean Penn (Mystic River, I am Sam) does a fantastic job of portraying Harvey Milk, and James Franco (SpiderMan III, City by the Sea) gives a good performance as Milk’s compassionate, caring, less flamboyant lover, Scot Smith. Josh Browlen, who plays Milk’s antagonist, Dan White, is convincing as a very conservative, right wing and ultimately damaged politician. The one flaw in this movie is that it doesn’t give a really comprehensive look into Milk’s life before he entered politics. The audience never fully understands what inspired him to take up the banner of gay rights with such vigour, or why he decided to do it in the political arena. Despite this omission Milk is still an excellent movie and I heartily recommend it.