The Mayor of Castro Streetby Kavish Chetty / 13.04.2009
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Such is the rallying rhetoric of Harvey Milk, hunched over a kitchen table in a dimmed glow, recording his final words in the event of his assassination. Gus van Sant’s biopic of the slain San Franciscan gay activist reminds us from the outset that Milk’s final words would have need to escape the celluloid on which they rested, but leaves the mystery of his murder to its conclusion.
Instead of eulogy and tears hanging from cheeks, curtains open on the camp Castro Street of Seventies’ San Francisco. Here Harvey Milk (Sean Penn in his Academy Award winning performance) and his boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), have opened up a camera store (with a sign ambiguously pasted to the window – “yes, we’re open”) and Milk is beginning to take an interest in political goings-on, opening his first soap-box acroasis with, “My fellow degenerates…” Soon, his activism takes on a far more auspicious angle, as he becomes the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, against a backdrop of police brutality against homosexuality and the surreal pronouncements of the devilish Anita Bryant, a Christian fundamentalist who wants gay teachers barred from the profession (the film’s release was tied to the 2008 California voter referendum on gay marriage, Proposition 8, underscoring the urgency and relevance of Milk’s message).
Penn’s portrayal of Milk could not be more appealing; he is confident and adorable, with a quiver of quips and an infectious smile. His machinations stir the latent activist within all viewers, and while watching the film is quite rallying (a lovely counterpoint to our political dejection in South Africa), it never steps into hagiographic territory, giving Milk an all-too-human quality. Ultimately, this film is excellent viewing, highly recommended, and would give (if only their minds weren’t on vacation) religious fundamentalists and conservative quacks something to think about in their crusade against human rights – An inspiring, enjoyable film from Mr. van Sant.