National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Oscars & Dustin Lance Black

Seldom ever have so many films among those nominated for “Best Picture” at the Oscars been set against or directly dealt with so many momentous historical events and realities of the recent past.

Four of the five, all incredibly compelling, including the well-deserved winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” were defined by profoundly real historical contexts within the last 70 years.

“The Reader” was set against the horrors of Nazi Germany, confronting a new generation of viewers with stark images of the unfathomable evil that was the Nazi Holocaust, silhouetted against the tour-de-force acting of Kate Winslet, who deservedly earned the Best Actress award.

“Frost/Nixon,” based on the amazing stage play, brought viewers front and center for one of the greatest turning points in modern American history, Watergate. If anyone deserved a Best Actor award who didn’t get it, it was Best Actor nominee Frank Langella’s rendition of Nixon, himself.

“Milk” was a bio-drama of one of the modern era’s most relentless and charismatic civil rights martyrs, as it was veritably the 1970s gay activist Harvey Milk, himself, who was channeled through Sean Penn, whose receptivity earned him the Best Actor award.

Finally, “Slumdog Millionaire” brought us forward to the 21st century, where the unrelenting slums of Mumbai, India are the setting for the compelling story, and steal the show with their uncompromising images of the kind of abject squalor that defines the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of humans on the globe.

None of these films were even close to being box office hits. None of them provided viewers with what so many of them obviously prefer: spills, thrills, violence, wanton murder, twisted maniacs or sophomoric scatological humor.

No, these films were not only steeped in historical reality, but the superb acting in all of them brought forth nuances of personal anguish, remorse, passion, hope, courage and quiet valor that are, truly, the core substance of what drives real history.

There is a profound redemption that they all share, as well, as they show how such personal qualities work their magic to move humanity beyond barbarism, deceit in high places, angry prejudice and brutal economic degradation.

All seemed to respond, and seek input into the mood of the American population during the past year, a population that rose up to make its own history with the election of the first Afro-American president in the nation’s history and by decisively repudiating the profound misdirection of the Bush administration and its cronies.

At the celebration of these and other fine films, the Academy Awards Sunday, it seemed fitting, if generally lost in the power of the overall event, that one of the most eloquent and poignant affirmations of the equality and dignity of gay and lesbian persons ever delivered in front of such a wide, global audience was spoken by an award recipient.

The screenwriter who developed the original script for “Milk,” a young man named Dustin Lance Black, came to the stage when it was announced he’d won, gripped his Oscar, and in front of 36.3 million television viewers said the following:

“I was 13 years old when my parents moved me from our conservative Mormon home in San Antonio to California, where I heard the story of Harvey Milk. It gave me hope that one day I could live my life as who I am, and maybe even fall in love one day and get married.” He thanked his mom, then added:

“If Harvey Milk had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who’ve been told they are ‘less than’ by their churches, or by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation. Thank you, and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk.”

It is almost certain that no more a heart-felt, affirming statement from one gay person to a nation of others has ever in history been uttered to so many on live television. It was in the spirit of what all the best films at this year’s Oscars were about.