A Win for Sean Penn

A Win for Sean Penn

As was only appropriate considering the political content of the film “Milk,” this writer was campaigning for Sean Penn in the Oscar race.

Penn won.

And the actor pulled no punches in accepting the Academy Award.


As was only appropriate considering the political content of the film “Milk,” this writer was campaigning for Sean Penn in the Oscar race.

Penn won.

And the actor pulled no punches in accepting the Academy Award.

“You commie, homo-loving, sons of guns,” the outspoken actor, who has traveled to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, pre-war Iraq and post-flood New Orleans to challenge conventional wisdom and the compromises of conventional politics, declared as he accepted the honor. “I did not expect this and… I know how hard I make it to appreciate me.”

But Penn’s primary message was an in-their-faces challenge to Californians who last fall rejected the granting of marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“Milk” came out just after the vote on the referendum.

“I think it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way,” announced Penn.

“We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

************************************************************BELOW READERS WILL FIND THE BEAT’S ARGUMENT FOR HONORING PENN…************************************************************

Those of us who write about politics as anything more than sport have waited a long time for a popular film to portray American electoral politics as it is lived by those candidates and campaigners who take the endeavor seriously. Unfortunately, all we got in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century was the buffoonery of Primary Colors and the even more disappointing variations of various and sundry films about accidental presidents.

Not since Robert Redford took his turn as The Candidate has an actor come close to offering a convincing portrayal of the experience of a contender for public office — and the subtleties of an endeavor that, for the best candidates, is always about a lot more than winning.

And Redford hung up his campaign poster 35 years ago.

So when Sean Penn brought Harvey Milk back to life, not just as the brilliant man that the San Francisco gay activist was but as the brilliant campaigner, it was something worth celebrating.

Milk was not the first gay or lesbian elected official in the United States. Elaine Noble, an out lesbian, was elected to the Massachusetts legislature three years before Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. But Milk’s campaigns, especially his initial unsuccessful runs for supervisor and state Assembly, were breakthrough runs that opened a new front in the fight for LGBT rights — as well as a new politics of coalitions so broad they would eventually be described as “the rainbow.”

Sean Penn, one of the most politically-engaged actors working in America today (even as the final touches were being put on Milk, he joined forums sponsored by The Nation and Progressive Democrats of America at last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver), understood the demands that went with playing a unique and uniquely-significant political pioneer. Much has been made of the fact that Penn so ably and lovingly portrayed a gay man, but it is equally remarkable that he so accurately and honestly portrayed a frustrated and ultimately successful candidate for local elected office.

Penn’s portrayal will inspire others to seek office as Milk did — without apology or compromise, with vision and radical faith and, above all, with a willingness to turn defeat into victory.

For that, Sean Penn gets this political writer’s vote for an Oscar.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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