I took a long respite from my job, blog, and really the news and the Internet generally--I only get home once a year, usually, so when I'm there I don't have time to do much but be there. Anyhow, I went to see Milk at the historic Grandin Theater in Roanoke, Virginia, making me the at least the third Reader staffer to see and enjoy the film, on the heels of J.R. Jones and Ben Joravsky.
I think it touched a nerve here because of all the things it's about--the Castro in the 70s, the politics of coming out, the gay-rights movement, Milk as a person--it's first and foremost a movie about local politics. It is, to borrow an overused term, Capra-esque about democracy and America. It's a really patriotic film, but it's patriotic about small business and local government, which makes it something of an anomaly in the political-movie genre.
Ben argues that we don't have a Harvey Milk here in Chicago, and it's true, but Harvey Milks are few and far between, and Harvey Milk became Harvey Milk thanks to a confluence of events and talents. He was the right person at the right place in the right time, a charismatic, funny, older, out gay man who, in his closeted years, was a very successful businessman and a former Goldwater volunteer.
If there's a flaw in the movie, it's that it elides his pre-San Francisco, pre-coming-out training as Harvey Milk, a Wall Street suit (actuary turned stock analyst) and serious theater hobbyist (he was an associate producer of Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar). At the beginning, the film portrays him as something of a nobody, a painfully anonymous businessman, who claims to have never done anything he's proud of in his first 40 years. Which may be true, but he was undeniably successful in the (culturally) straight and conservative world with a substantial sideline business in the theater world.
It's a minor complaint, but the back story adds richness to Milk's time in San Francisco. He got involved in politics, in part, because he got dicked around as a small business owner--not just as a homosexual, but as a guy trying to make a living. Milk's business background gave him legitimacy as a politician and an honest concern for the role of business in the community, and his camera shop gave him standing and experience with the ins and outs of local and state regulations. Meanwhile, his exposure to theater (Gus Van Sant constantly references his love of opera) clearly influenced his gift for stagecraft. There's a hilarious but important sequence when Milk steps in planted poop before a press conference to push a dog-dropping ordinance. Milk was a great man and truly one of the great figures in recent American history, but as a city supervisor he also had to think about things like dog shit. Not only was he not above it, he understood the importance of such small matters to voters and to the balance of power on the board of supervisors. In other words, he wasn't just a great man or a great politician--he was a great local politician, a totally unique role in society, and one that in midlife he found himself perfect for. Similarly, the movie depicts, quickly but movingly, the evolution of Cleve Jones from a snotty street kid into a gifted organizer under the tutelage of Milk.
Like Ben, I'd love to have our own Harvey Milk, but in fairness it's asking a lot. Milk really was a superstar of local politics, and with all due credit to his own efforts the figure we know as Harvey Milk is the result of events lining up with the particulars of Milk's own life, passions, and gifts. It's a lot to expect, but also a fine model to study.
It's still screening at multiple venues around town, and you should go see it. On the fantastic TV and movie site Hulu, you can watch the Oscar-winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. I also highly recommend Albert Williams's profile of Frank Robinson, a local sci-fi writer who became Milk's speechwriter and the author of Milk's Obama-esque "hope speech."