If you lived in the Bay Area in the 1970s, you know the story of Harvey Milk, the martyred San Francisco supervisor.

Still, the movie about his life offers new insights into the spirit, energy and courage that made him a champion for the rights of gay people. Gus Van Sant’s movie, “Milk,” deserves its place among the best films of 2008. It’s still at the Rialto. You should check it out.

In 1977, Milk became the first out-of-the-closet elected official in the nation. A year later, he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by a political rival, former Supervisor Dan White. The City Hall killings rocked a city already grieving over the mass suicide at Jonestown nine days earlier.

I never met Milk, but as young reporter, I did talk a few times with Moscone, who I remember as a nice guy and a politician with an easy charm. In a profile published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998, 20 years after his death, Moscone was described as the city’s first progressive mayor and the first to appoint large numbers of women, gays and minorities to city jobs. (Here’s a piece of hometown trivia: As a student, Moscone briefly attended Santa Rosa Junior College.)

The movie tells the story of Milk’s leadership in defeating a statewide ballot measure to prohibit gays from teaching in the public schools. Flash forward 30 years, and we come to the passage last month of Proposition 8, a measure to outlaw gay marriage.

From the movie, we can guess that Harvey Milk would be disappointed but not deterred. There will be another election, he would say, and another opportunity to secure equal rights for everyone.