First things first. Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is a movie to be thankful for. Go see it, tonight if you can, and in a crowded theater. See it because as a grass-roots activist and California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk led and won the fight to defeat Proposition 6, an anti-gay measure as bigoted in its own time as Proposition 8 is today. Or because it features one of our best actors at his least actorly — in his most winning performance since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Or because on Nov. 4, civil rights took a step back on the very day it leaped forward — though Milk would have known how to use that defeat to galvanize a movement. See it because Milk is a legend in his community and in San Francisco but he hasn’t yet been written into the history of American civil rights at large, where he belongs.

Hell, see it because it’s going to take all Wednesday night to defrost the turkey, anyway, and how often does a movie about a martyred hero leave you wanting to buy tinted prescription glasses and dance in the street?

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“Milk” does not exactly paint Dan White as a homophobe or racist — the scenes in which White rants against a gay demonstration and fights to keep a facility for troubled young people out of his district tell only half the story. Before White, a Vietnam veteran and former crusader for racial justice in his own Fire Department, came completely unhinged, he was supportive of gay San Francisco. SF Weekly has the backstory.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, writer on HBO’s “Big Love,” was raised in the Mormon church. Last week he told Terry Gross how Harvey Milk inspired him to come out, and he offers some astute insights into church leaders’ possible motivations for backing Proposition 8.

Get Out of the Bars and Into the Streets on this audio walking tour of Milk’s San Francisco.

Rob Epstein, who won an Oscar for “The Times of Harvey Milk,” talks about his current project, a feature film about Allen Ginsberg starring James Franco.

If you live in a city or town with a gay neighborhood large enough for its own theater, see it there. After the credits roll — and yes, you’ll stay through the credits, weeping and clapping — take advantage of the fact that for a minute “Milk” will have done for that crowd what Harvey Milk did for the Castro district: help transform a group of isolated individuals into a community. Scan that community for cute strangers. Smile, strike up a conversation, and then invite them back to your place to share some cheap merlot and watch the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” by Robert Epstein (see sidebar to watch online) — because these two films belong together.

Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary, which he began working on before Milk’s assassination, is a marvelously constructed narrative of both Milk’s achievements and the political context of civil rights in the late 1970s. And now it’s also worth seeing just for the pleasure of appreciating how well Penn captures the real life politician’s gestures, charm and infectious humor, and how well Van Sant and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, capture the ebullience of those first heady days of pre-AIDS freedom in the Castro.

Almost as impressive are James Franco as Scott Smith, Milk’s longtime boyfriend, and Josh Brolin — who specializes in bad guy pathos — as ally-turned-assassin Dan White. Diego Luna’s twitchy performance as an unhinged lover is an embarrassing distraction, and Van Sant and Black spend a bit too much time on Milk’s private life, at the expense of the much more gripping drama taking place back of Milk’s camera store, where he and his ad-hoc advisory council plotted out his campaign strategies.

Which is why — inspired, tired and a little drunk — you and your new best friends might now take a look around your living room, and admit that it’s not nearly as shabby as the collection of beat-up couches and overflowing ashtrays that Milk and his staff used to plan some of most important campaigns in the history of American civil rights.

Sean Penn’s spectacular laugh lines inspire, but it’s Epstein’s film that blocks out Milk’s strategies and political philosophy in ways that Hollywood can only touch on, what with the need to make time for Love, Loss, Moments of Quiet Reckoning, and extraneous flashbacks to scenes that that were extraneous to begin with. Epstein instead explores Milk’s effect on some of the labor leaders he worked with, his almost spooky mutual love affair with news cameras, his insistence on the need for minorities to find strength by working together, and the darker days of unrest following White’s unjustly light sentencing, which culminated in a riot that did a million dollars worth of damage to City Hall and landed almost 200 San Franciscans in the hospital.

“The Times of Harvey Milk” is in essence a riveting primer in effective grass-roots activism. Epstein’s cameras followed Milk’s supporters straight into hostile neighborhoods where they reached out to voters one by one. Today, Milk would have sought out newly influential minorities through churches, pamphleteering and precinct walking. And we can be sure he’d have condemned intimidation campaigns against individuals who supported Prop. 8 and the recent name-calling by angry demonstrators directed at African-Americans on the streets of Los Angeles. Instead, he’d have preached a relentless optimism, the kind that rallies masses and empowers individuals.

“I know you cannot live on hope alone,” he told an enthusiastic crowd on the steps of City Hall 30 years ago. “But without it, life is not worth living. And you … and you … and you … gotta give ’em hope.”

Hope is Milk’s legacy, and action his imperative. And if in the course of following both, you also brought some cute strangers home, Harvey Milk would not disapprove.

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