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“My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you!”

This disarming introduction became the trademark of the man who would become the first out gay man to hold major elective office in the United States. With this greeting, Milk let his audience know that he understood their fears of homosexuality and could not only make a little gentle fun of them but could make fun of himself, too. He did want to recruit his audiences, not to being gay but to fighting for justice.

As the movie begins, Milk (Oscar-winner Sean Penn) is about to turn 40 and feels that he has never done anything important. So he and his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco) move to San Francisco, open a camera store, and begin to get involved in the community and to become active in opposing a system that perpetuated bigotry and abuse of the gay community. After running unsuccessfully, he makes an important change in his approach — instead of running against something, he starts to run for something, to talk about hope. He becomes a respected leader. He forges some unexpected alliances — with the Teamsters and with people who want pooper-scooper laws. He is elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. But he has enemies. There are threats. And finally, he is killed, along with the city’s mayor, by one of his former colleagues, Dan White (Josh Brolin).

This film has some of the elements of the traditional biopic, but Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black spares us the shorthand formative childhood experiences and minimizes the internal struggles. From the first moment we see Milk, picking up a stranger coming out of the subway on the eve of his 40th birthday we see a man who is already completely comfortable with who he is, a man of great sweetness and humor (both as in good humor and as in wit).

Every performance is impeccable, especially Penn, Franco, and Brolin. But what makes the movie so vibrant is the exquisitely evoked setting, not just the meticulously re-created Castro neighborhood of the 1970’s but the era, the moment, when so much seemed against what they were trying to achieve (the archival footage shows a casual homophobia that is a powerful reminder of how far we have come, even in an era of state initiatives to ban gay marriage. The sweetness and thrill of a heady new sense of possibilities in the pre-AIDS era is almost unbearably poignant. It is a tragic story but it is also a story of hope. It was hope, after all, that Milk learned to bring to his community. That community grew to include the entire city, and now, thanks to this film, to all of us.

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