It took awhile to get here, but Gus Van Sant’s timely and vibrant biopic Milk, which I caught on Christmas day, is well worth the wait. In a year that witnessed a former community organizer take his message of hope all the way to the White House, and saw a majority of Californians vote for legislating and invalidating their neighbors’ marriages (my favorite pin: “Can we vote on your marriage now?“), Milk couldn’t feel any more of the moment. (If anything, I wish Milk had come out before the Prop 8 vote, when it might’ve done some good.) Arguably the best film about the realities of politics since Charlie Wilson’s War, Milk is blessed with excellent performances across the board — most notably Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin, but also supporting turns by Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and others. And as a chronicle of a key moment in an ongoing civil rights struggle, Milk also feels like a watershed film of its own in its approach to its gay and lesbian characters. In short, it’s one of the best films of 2008.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” So began the oft-repeated speel of the San Francisco city supervisor and “Mayor of Castro Street,” who, in 1977 and after several attempts, became the first openly gay official elected to office in the US. But, seven years before those heady days, Milk (Sean Penn) was just a 40-year-old insurance man (and Republican, even), living a closeted life of quiet desperation in NYC. After a chance encounter and illicit proposition becomes an impromptu birthday party, Milk and new beau Scott Smith (James Franco) fall in love, talk about starting over, and decide to go West. Life is peaceful there…or is it? Even as Milk’s camera shop in the gay-friendly Castro district becomes a salon of artists, thinkers, and free spirits, bigotry is rampant even in the streets of San Francisco, and the cops at best turn a blind eye to — and at worst actively participate in — antigay violence. No more, says Milk. Taking a page from the ethnic political machines of an earlier century, he organizes Castro’s gays and lesbians into first a protest movement and then an organized voting and boycotting bloc. And when a redistricting plan emphasizing community self-rule in San Francisco is put into effect, Milk becomes an actual, legitimate political wheeler-and-dealer, with all the benefits and aggravations attending. (For more on the man and the movement, see the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, now on Hulu for free.)
But, even as Harvey Milk rises to power in San Fran, a parallel movement stirs amid the churches and suburbs of Orange County. Led by former beauty queen, singer, and orange juice shiller Anita Bryant, the ever-so-Christian “Save Our Children” campaign gathers steam across the nation in its quest to roll back what meager protections gays and lesbians have managed to establish over the years. And when conservative state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare, seemingly forever destined to play assholes) brings the fight west in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative that would ban gays and lesbians from public schools, the battle for California is on. And even as Milk becomes the poster boy against Prop 6 and for recognizing gays and lesbians as full citizens and fellow human beings, he has to contend with trouble on the homefront — not only in his personal life (his new boyfriend Jack (Diego Luna) is more than a little erratic) but in his political backyard, where supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), from the Catholic, working-class district next door, is starting to act increasingly unstable. (But, I guess this is what happens when society is so permissive as to let a man get all hopped up on twinkies.)
Which reminds me: A word of appreciation for Josh Brolin’s work here. Sean Penn is garnering kudos across the board, and a likely Oscar nod, for his portrayal of Milk, and they’re very well-deserved. It’s really an astonishing transformation Penn accomplishes here — not so much because he’s playing someone who’s gay (homosexual), but because he’s playing someone who’s gay (happy).This is the same guy who sulked through Mystic River?) And, while Brolin will likely — and, imho, justifiably in the end — get edged out for Best Supporting Actor by Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, his work here suggests he’s got some serious chops. At first it seems as if Brolin will just be coasting on his recent Dubya impression — another good-natured, hard-hearted conservative fratboy for the resume. Then, just as you think Brolin’s endangering himself in terms of typecasting, it’s suggested Dan White might also be a deeply repressed closet case. (I tend to find the argument that all frothing-at-the-mouth homophobes are in reality trapped in the closet to be too simplistic by half, but apparently there’s some grounding for it in White’s story. In any case, Brolin underplays it beautifully ) As Milk progresses, we begin to sense other reasons why White is such a strange and ultimately homicidal bird — he’s envious of Harvey, he feels personally screwed over by him, he’s something of a friendless wonder, he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree anyway, he feels trapped by, and powerless before, the authority figures in his life (his wife, his cop buddies, his church). Brolin lets all of this play out without tipping his hand in any one direction. It’s a subtle, complex, and very worthwhile performance, and it’s a testament to the film’s heart that it extends such empathy even to its ostensible antagonist.
Speaking of empathy, this isn’t at all a surprise coming from Gus Van Sant, always a very humanistic director, but it should be noted regardless: When it comes to full recognition of gays and lesbians, Milk laudably practices what it preaches. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was good for its time, but nowadays (it’s on heavy rotation on AMC) it gives off a distinctly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? vibe. And, as I said when it came out, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain often seemed “as somber, restrained, and delicate as Kabuki theater.” By contrast, the couples of Milk are passionate — both physically and emotionally — messy, flawed, and alive. Of course, there have been other well-rounded depictions of gays and lesbians in film in the past — in Van Sant’s earlier work, in the films of other gay directors like Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, and Kimberly Peirce, and in countless others. Still, Milk feels like an event of sorts. Unlike many of its forebears, it’s a mainstream Oscar-caliber movie that just takes its characters’ sexuality at face value and without apology. In that sense, it feels like a film whose time has come.
I said earlier that Dan White was ostensibly the villain of Milk, but that’s not entirely true. Rather, to its credit, the film is pretty bold about pointing the finger where the trouble really lies: at the conservative-minded legions of organized Christendom — or at the very least its right-wing, for-profit flank — who’ve decided that arbitrarily upholding one proscription mentioned in passing in the Old Testament (shellfish, anyone?), and then ruthlessly enforcing it on the backs of their neighbors and co-workers, is more important than upholding the central tenet of the actual teachings of Jesus: “Love one another.” (Along those lines, expect a good bit of “godless liberal Hollywood” bluster from the usual corners if this film gets any Oscar buzz.)
Which brings us to that Wal-Mart of spirituality, Rick Warren, who as you all know will be delivering the invocation at Obama’s inauguration this month, and who has said all manner of intemperate things about gays and lesbians (as well as jews, pro-choice voters, and others) in the past, even going so far as to campaign for Prop 8 in California two months ago.
Now, when the Rick Warren pick first came out, I didn’t say anything here for two reasons. One was deeply selfish: That was the week I was finishing up my speechwriting app, and it didn’t seem like the most opportune time to be too critical of the administration around here at GitM. (In the end, it didn’t matter anyway, of course.) More importantly, though, I am — and still partly remain — of the mind that the bigger picture needs to be kept in mind here. If it keeps the right-wing fundies relatively happy and docile, and helps them to buy into the notion of a post-partisan Obama presidency, then Rick Warren can give all the one minute ceremonial speeches he wants, so long as Obama ultimately shows himself a friend to gay and lesbian rights in his presidential actions.
But, there’s a sequence in Milk that brought me around a bit. When Dan White mentions the “issue” of gay rights in one crucial scene, Harvey replies: “These are not issues, Dan. These are our lives we’re fighting for.” And, put that way, the calculus changes. To straight progressive folk such as myself, one can easily — too easily — get to thinking of gay rights as an “issue” among many. But, for gays and lesbians all around the country, this is their lives. And, when considered thusly, the president of these United States — least of all a president who ran and won on a campaign of hope — should not be legitimizing bigotry, such as that continuously expressed by Warren without apology, in any kind of forum, let alone the most portentous and culturally significant inauguration in at least fifty years, perhaps ever.
In an eloquent column last week, the NYT‘s Frank Rich articulated basically where I stand on Obama’s decision at this point: His choice of Warren is “no Bay of Pigs. But it does add an asterisk to the joyous inaugural of our first black president. It’s bizarre that Obama, of all people, would allow himself to be on the wrong side of this history.” Let’s hope that Obama doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the last Democratic president, who very quickly started backpedaling on gay rights once in office, vis a vis “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And, while I’m sure he’s pretty busy these days, the president-elect (apparently a movie buff of sorts) could do worse than spend a few hours to reflect on the story of another community-organizer who believed in the transformative power of hope, who carried the hopes of his constitutents into higher office…and who faced unflinching and unwavering contempt from an irreconcilable opposition once he got there.
So…as you probably saw, Sen. Clinton finally, officially left the race on Saturday. In the interests of moving forward, I’ll refrain from commenting too much about her woefully self-absorbed concession speech [text], which has generally been garnering raves out of (I suspect) valedictory courtesy. It might’ve worked better if given at the appropriate time, I suppose, but as a do-over I found it sub-par both in theme (once again, it was all about her) and delivery (she only smiled when discussing herself, and otherwise had that gritted-teeth POW look about her.)
Regarding Sen. Clinton’s much-touted brand-relaunch as a shatterer of glass ceilings and an exemplary avatar of feminism, I’ll point to this earlier post by Alison Benedikt and Anne Applebaum’s essay on Slate: “[T]he last few weeks of her campaign have been not so much feminist as pathological.” For everything else, I’ll refer to my post on Sen. Clinton’s Boromirian tendencies these past primary months. In any case, on to the general election.
Well, it’s sometimes seemed to have more endings than Return of the King. But, tonight, it looks like the primary season is finally, really, truly at an end, with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois our duly chosen Democratic nominee. In the days and weeks ahead, it’ll behoove all of us, however hard, to let the primary bygones be bygones and to help reunite the party against our real foe, John McCain and the GOP. But, before we let the healing begin, I do have one more word to say about the Clintons, who above all else this campaign season has proven the truth of the old adage: “Choose your enemies wisely, for you will become them.“
Now, I’m not going to recite the full litany of grievances against the Clintons’ behavior of late one more time. I’d say that ground is already pretty well-covered in the election archives. But I will say this: It has become increasingly fashionable in the press and elsewhere to esteem Sen. Clinton — regardless of her other political transgressions — as gutsy, tenacious, a fighter. Say what you will about her methods, this line of thinking goes, she goes there. She does what needs to be done. In fact, argues otherwise discerning political observers such as friend and colleague David Greenberg, she is exactly the kind of fighter the Left has said they’ve been looking for. (Of course, she and her husband have been AWOL when it counted over the past seven years, but that’s neither here nor there in this view.)
Well, simply put, this is all hooey. Sen. Clinton’s behavior over the past six months and change has been exactly the wrong lesson for Democrats to draw from the politics of the last decade. I’ve said it here several times before, but, in a nutshell, here’s why:
You don’t wear the ring. You destroy the ring.
Or, in other words, the key to beating the Republicans is not by acting Republican. It’s by rising above their tendentious garbage and working to restore reason and sanity to our politics. At the very least, a Democratic nominee for president shouldn’t validate the base tactics of the GOP by wallowing in their wretchedness. For what shall it profit a woman, if she shall gain the whole world, and lose her own soul?
Nevertheless, seemingly blinded by ambition, Sen. Clinton very quickly chose the wrong path. (In the place of a Dumb Lord, we would have a Queen…) She embraced the Rove playbook and dabbled in Al Qaeda hysteria. She validated John McCain and threatened to obliterate Iran. She called her opponent elitist and derided the “elite opinion” of the reality-based community. She played nice with Limbaugh, Scaife, and FOX. She flirted dangerously with the race card and lauded hard-working whites. She, for all intent and purposes, became the Republican candidate in the Democratic primary. She, and her husband, became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
To repeat something I said after Wisconsin in February, the night when Sen. Obama’s primary victory basically became mathematically inexorable: “If you’ll forgive the lapse into LotR metaphors, the treason of Saruman, once the noblest and wisest of our order, is almost subdued. The Battle for Middle-Earth is only beginning.” So, as we move forward after tonight, I’ll try as much as anyone to tone down the internecine fighting around here, and start focusing fire on our true opponents over on the Right. (That is provided, of course, that Sen. Clinton chooses to diminish, go into the West, and remain a Democrat.)
But let’s also draw the appropriate lesson from the Clinton candidacy of 2008. The Clinton era is over, and this general election is now a chance for we as Dems “to show our quality.” We are not Dubya-Rove Republicans, and adopting their scorched-earth idiocies in a “tenacious” attempt to get elected is most assuredly the road to political, civic, and spiritual ruin.
“Tonight, Iowa, in the fullness of spring, with the help of those who stood up from Portland to Louisville, we have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people, and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.” After winning Oregon 59-41 (with 94% reporting) and, uh, doing less well in Kentucky (although I was heartened to see he took Louisville), Sen. Obama returns to Iowa with a majority of the pledged delegates, thus effectively sealing up the nomination.
It looks like Sen. Clinton has decided to hang around a few more weeks nonetheless (in part, it seems, to expose the “vast sexist conspiracy” which caused her not to contest caucus states or come up with a plan past Super Tuesday), but the focus for Team Obama is now clearly on John McCain and the GOP. “‘I will leave it up to Senator McCain to explain to the American people whether his policies and positions represent long-held convictions or Washington calculations,’ Obama’s remarks continued, ‘but the one thing they don’t represent is change.’“
Update: By way of The Late Adopter and sententiae et clamores, The Village Voice‘s Allison Benedikt puts the lie to Sen. Clinton’s grappling with sexism of late: “Currently pregnant with the next generation, let me just say this: There is no greater wish that a mother can have for her daughter than that she will exploit poor people, obliterate Iran, and win rigged class president elections, Putin-style. (Mom, I won 100 percent of the vote!)…This War on Women is just like the War on Christmas: imaginary.”
“Remember, Jeannette Rankin was elected before women could vote. So who says men don’t vote for a woman?” Resorting to a blatant gender pitch once more, Sen. Clinton name-drops Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first female representative. (She also took hold of the recent Kinsley meme: “‘Do you realize how much longer it takes for me to get ready than my opponents?” Clinton said. ‘I think I should get points for what I do, plus having to spend so much time getting ready.'”)
Just to set the record straight, Jeannette Rankin was a committed pacifist who not only led the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” to protest the Vietnam War late in her life, but voted against American entry into both World Wars (and was the only person to vote against entry into WWII.) So, their common womanhood aside, I think it’s safe to say Rankin would be thoroughly disgusted by Clinton’s record on Iraq and Iran, and might well roundly reject the comparison.
“I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don’t resolve it, we’ll resolve it at the convention — that’s what credentials committees are for.” As the press fully and finally catches up with the fact that it’s over — it only took a month, but, hey, math is hard! — Sen. Clinton digs in for the long haul (and liberally plays the gender card anew), announcing she’s staying in until a convention floor fight in August…which, by the way, she’ll assuredly lose.
Their hand thus forced, more supers emerge for Sen. Obama, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and, sometime soon, seven House members from North Carolina. And, with the Gallup tracking poll disparity as big as it’s ever been (thanks in part to Snipergate, one presumes), I’m guessing Sen. Clinton’s fundraising also might be taking a hit. As such, I’m still of the opinion that this will all end May 6 or soon thereafter. Or, at least, that’s my hope. This is not ‘Nam, Sen. Clinton, this is politics. There are rules.
By the way, if anyone is under the impression that I’m so in the bag for Sen. Obama that no discouraging word about him shall ever be posted here at GitM, I’ll say this: This man should never bowl in public ever again. 37? That’s really sad. (And how did Bob Casey become a Senator from Pennsylvania bowling only a 71? I’m no Walter Sobchak, but I can’t remember bowling under an 80 since the age of ten.) Please, Senator, at least until the election, stick with making baskets.
Update: The Obama campaign pushes back on the WSJ’s NC supers story. So apparently the joint endorsement of those seven Reps is not as imminent as reported.
“One of the most laudable things about Obama is that he always elects to rise above the politics of victimization. One of the most troubling things about Hillary Clinton is that she is never above cashing in on it.” Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick and Melinda Hennenberger explain what Sen. Clinton might say in a “gender” speech akin to Sen. Obama’s remarks on race last week — and why she’d never deliver it. “She won’t give that speech because the whole narrative of her candidacy — and more broadly, her life — is as rooted in grievance as Obama’s is in getting past grievance. Her biggest supporters are the women who see themselves in her and who feel that she is/they are owed this; after all she has/they have endured…She won’t give that speech because she has been on the wrong side of gender bias.”
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” I saw this yesterday and was going to leave it well enough alone, but since it’s growing into a full-fledged dustup today, and since Team Clinton recently made a point of calling for Samantha Power’s scalp: former veep candidate and Crossfire host Geraldine Ferraro makes some rather unfortunate remarks about Sen. Obama. To quote Ambinder (whom I generally find irritating, but he pegged this one): “Because running as a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama is soooo easy.” At any rate, if the door is now open to playing this ridiculous identity game, I think it’s rather obvious to all that if Ferraro herself was a white man, we’d never have heard of her, since her gender was basically the sole reason for her inclusion on that historically terrible ’84 ticket. Similarly, if Sen. Clinton wasn’t the spouse of a former president, it’s hard to imagine her still in this race, particularly given her virtual mathematical elimination and all.
Perhaps, before Ferraro makes any more dubious claims about an easy road for black males in our society, she should read Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s editorial today in the NYT, where he examines the old-school racial fears stoked by Clinton’s infamous 3am ad: “I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society.” Some pundits argue that Patterson is over the top here, but I actually think he’s on to something (and, note, I’ve recently defended the Clinton ad people on charges of intentional racism.)
As Chris Orr notes, this wasn’t just a warmed-over Mondale/LBJ Cold War leadership spot. Team Clinton explicitly turned it into an old-school home invasion ad, the kind that’s so passé that even Slomin’s Shield has moved on. The Clinton campaign still could’ve forestalled any possible racial subtext by changing the race of the family, but, as it is, you’d have to be willfully naive not to see a problem with the Clinton version of “Barack Obama is a menace that will harm your sleeping (white) children in their beds” as it came out. At the very least, the ad gurus at Camp Clinton are guilty of willful ignorance about racist cultural tropes in American history, and perhaps a good deal more. Update: In response, the Clinton campaign points to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her African-American child in the ad, although, given the lighting, that wasn’t immediately obvious, to say the least.)
Update 2: Ferraro blows a gasket, now claiming: “I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?” Well, if it’s any consolation, Rep. Ferraro, I’m sure your fellow national embarrassment, Sean Wilentz, agrees with you. (Patterson rebuts Wilentz here.) Update 3: Ferraro’s done this before, back in ’88: “If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn’t be in the race.“
Update 4: “It wasn’t a racist comment, it was a statement of fact.” Ferraro can’t seem to stop digging herself deeper. At this point she’s either dogwhistling to Pennsyltucky or just completely off the rails. Either way, Keith Olbermann’s disbelief about Ferrarogate last night is worth watching. Update 5: She’s gone, and not very gracefully.
“The Obama campaign has yet to reach bottom in its race-baiter accusations…They promise to continue until they win the nomination, by any means necessary.” Taylor Marsh, Ph.D? A Clinton supporter from Day One, he at first dismissed Obama as merely the newest in a long tradition of “beautiful losers,” like Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. (If you come ’round here often, you can probably guess that didn’t sit too well with me. In fact, it’s basically the same argument recently made by friend and colleague David Greenberg, before he went the way of the Great White Hope.) Well, if today’s TNR piece is any indication, historian Sean Wilentz only knows how to lose ugly. Despite the fact that Wilentz has been ranting worse than Krugman for most of this election cycle, I’ve been inclined to give him a pass, partly as a professional courtesy of sorts to a well-esteemed historian of whom I once thought quite highly, and partly because of his well-publicized Dylan fandom. Well, no more. Wilentz has been writing increasingly blatant pro-Clinton spin pieces throughout the campaign, which is his wont as a Clinton supporter, I suppose. But here he’s penned a shrill and intemperate screed which, frankly, is more embarrassing than anything else. It’s the type of angry, weirdly conspiratorial rant you’d expect to be written by an anonymous, and possibly drunk, Salon poster, not one of the more venerable American historians in the profession.
Am I overstating the case? Well, let’s take a look at some of the spleen-venting on display here: “After several weeks of swooning, news reports are finally being filed about the gap between Senator Barack Obama’s promises of a pure, soul-cleansing ‘new’ politics and the calculated, deeply dishonest conduct of his actually-existing campaign. But it remains to be seen whether the latest ploy by the Obama camp–over allegations about the circulation of a photograph of Obama in ceremonial Somali dress–will be exposed by the press as the manipulative illusion that it is.” Calculated, deeply dishonest conduct? Ploy? Manipulative illusion? Tell us what you really think, Prof. Wilentz.
And that’s just the first paragraph. It gets worse. Check out this unsightly sentence: “As insidious as these tactics are, though, the Obama campaign’s most effective gambits have been far more egregious and dangerous than the hypocritical deployment of deceptive and disingenuous attack ads.” Riiight. I really started to buy your case after that fifth negative adjective or so.
I’d spend time refuting Wilentz point for point if I thought he was trying to make a reasonable case here. But he spends most of the article just shrieking “race baiter race baiter race baiter!“, punctuated with occasional whiny, Clintonesque accusations of pro-Obama media bias. (One of the many targets of Wilentz’s wrath, Frank Rich, has recently pointed out the problems with that line of argument.) But, in general terms, in order to buy what Wilentz is selling here, you’d have to believe all of the following:
And so on. Meanwhile, in between the purging of bile (Obama’s “cutthroat, fraudulent politics,” “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since Willie Horton, “the most insidious” since Reagan in Philadelphia), Wilentz trots out stale and rather sad race-conspiracy talking points from pro-Clinton hives like TalkLeft, such as Jesse Jackson Jr. chiding superdelegate Emanuel Cleaver for standing in the way of a black president. (Please. As if female superdelegates weren’t receiving similar calls from the Clinton camp. Clinton even made the explicit gender case — again — in the debate tonight.) I dunno, perhaps this is what you should expect from a thinker who cites Philip Roth as an expert on black-white relations. (Although, fwiw, Roth’s voting Obama.) Nevertheless, Wilentz has crossed over the line here from politically-minded historian to unhinged demagogue, and made himself to look absolutely ridiculous in the process. It’ll be hard to read his historical work in the future without this hyperbolic and ill-conceived polemic in mind.