Was Van Sant afraid that audiences wouldn't be sympathetic if 70s-era gay activists were people who suffered, swore, fought back, and fucked like they meant it? If the street kids actually looked like dirty, starving, broke-ass teen hustlers?
Gay history -- unedited -- is ugly, angry, and violent. It's police dragging us out of cellar bars and down to the station to gang fuck the femmes and face-rape the butches, queens, and trannies. It's military witch hunts; suicides and "experimental therapies," from lobotomies and electro-shock to Christian boot camps. It's Stonewall, where we showered raiding police with bottles, locked them in the bar, and set it afire. It's ACT UP and chaining ourselves to pharmaceutical companies' fences to protest AIDS drugs price gouging.
Of course, Milk offers a sanitized version of Harvey's life and that particular moment in gay movement history. It is a film produced and distributed by Hollywood that stars mainstream actors like Sean Penn, Diego Luna and James Franco. But, that doesn't make it any less an important film.
I say that not because the film is likely one of the first film's about a hero of the gay movement that straight people will see. Or, even that it is the first film about a gay movement hero that a lot of gay people will see.
Along with telling stories about how they walked 12 miles to get to the lone gay bar in the next town over across unpaved roads wearing homemade outfits cobbled together with pluck and a Bedazzler, older gays love to point fingers at young gays and accuse them of being ignorant of gay history and the gay movement. This may be true, but ignores the reality that the straight majority has colluded to render us and our history invisible. And, it ignores the fact that older gays have a responsibility to do more than pass judgment about what younger gays may or may not know.
We have a responsibility to share that knowledge and to create opportunities for gay and straight, young and old to learn about the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender and the straight allies who have stood with us in our fight for equal rights.