Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
With Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, and Alison Pill.
The opening credits of Milk, Gus Van Sant's biopic of the slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk, play out against black-and-white archival footage of police raiding a Miami gay bar. As Danny Elfman's elegiac strings swell on the soundtrack, patrons are hustled out by the cops, covering their faces, oppressed by their own shame. One of them, frustrated by the camera's glare as he sits at the bar, hurls his drink at the lens; outside, men are jammed into the paddy wagon like cattle. It's a moving sequence that efficiently communicates the emotional and political dynamics of the pre-Stonewall era. It's also highly reminiscent of the opening-credit sequence in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), which pairs grainy, slow-motion video footage of the Rodney King beating with an audio recording of Malcolm raging against white supremacy.
The parallels hardly end there. Like Lee's film, Milk isn't just the story of a political leader but a political event in its own right, introducing its martyred hero to mainstream moviegoers and implicitly championing his ideals. Other biographies of Milk—Randy Shilts's book The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)—have considered him in the context of his times, but Milk also considers him in the context of ours. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black manage to pull off the same balancing act between the movement and the mainstream that made Harvey Milk such an effective politician in 70s San Francisco. By capturing Milk as a person, the movie helps all viewers empathize and find common cause with him; by observing Milk as a politician, it offers activists a practical lesson in the use of power 30 years after his death.
No one could accuse Milk of being one-dimensional. In his closeted early years he held down corporate jobs in New York City and even campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. After he and his lover moved to San Francisco in 1972, they opened a camera store in the city's heavily gay Castro neighborhood, earning him political bona fides as a businessman. Milk forged an alliance between the gay community and the macho Teamsters by enlisting gay bars in the union's boycott of Coors beer, and in his quixotic campaigns for the city's board of supervisors, he assembled an unlikely power base of gays, hippies, seniors, union members, and small-business owners. Amid the cynicism of the post-Watergate era, Milk urged gay men to get involved in politics, yet in his own community he ran as an insurgent, rejecting the counsel of established gay leaders who hedged their bets with straight liberal candidates like Dianne Feinstein. When Milk finally won his seat on the board in 1977, he became the state's first openly gay elected official.
Milk is steeped in the street-level details of acquiring and applying power, and a few early episodes show how clearly Milk understood the economic component. When Harvey (Sean Penn) and Scott Smith (James Franco) first open their camera store, a neighboring merchant sees them kissing on the street and urges them to find another neighborhood for their business, predicting that the local merchants' association will reject their membership. Milk not only launches a rival merchants' association for gay businesses but initiates a blacklist of businesses that are hostile to gays and ultimately drives them out of the neighborhood. A few scenes later, when Milk pledges his community's support to the Teamsters' boycott of Coors, he's quick to extract a promise of payback in the form of union memberships for openly gay men. "We weren't just a group of pansies anymore," he says in the movie's voice-over narration. "We had a neighborhood. We had the unions. And for the first time, we had a little bit of power."
As a gay leader, however, Milk also realized that his people could never hold power unless they came out of the closet. This was his central strategy in battling Proposition 6, the 1978 California state ballot initiative that would have prohibited homosexuals from teaching in public schools. "If we're gonna convince the 90 percent to give a shit about us 10 percent, we have to let 'em know who we are," he tells a gathering of activists in the movie. "We have to leave the ghetto, let all those people out there know that they do know one of us. And if people won't step out of the closet, we open the door for them." This edict is immediately personalized when one of the activists, Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross), admits that he hasn't come out to his father and Milk, without missing a beat, picks up a telephone and holds it out to him. Not everyone in the room approves of Milk's browbeating, but history shows that his political instincts were correct: the slogan "Come out, come out wherever you are" helped turn the tide against Proposition 6. Its defeat by a wide margin turned out to be the crowning achievement of Milk's political career.
Before leaving New York, Milk had flirted with the theater, working as an associate producer with the scandalous Tom O'Horgan (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lenny). Once he got into politics, he turned out to be a master media manipulator with a flawless instinct for political theater. During the battle over Proposition 6, Milk decided he needed a popular issue to raise his visibility and, responding to the public frustration over dog mess, sponsored a pooper-scooper law. Black and Van Sant faithfully re-create Milk's outdoor press conference announcing the bill, where he delighted reporters by "accidentally" stepping in a dog turd planted by one of his aides. Yet his understanding of how to use political spectacle extended beyond publicity stunts. When Castro residents flood the streets, raging over Anita Bryant's success repealing a Florida gay-rights law, Milk tries to prevent an eruption of violence by funneling their anger into a street demonstration. "Give me permission to march them," he implores a policeman. When the cop asks where, Milk replies, "Anywhere!"
Not all the political lessons in Milk are particularly pleasant, and the most unpleasant may be that alliances aren't friendships. George Moscone recognized the growing political clout of the gay community and earned its loyalty with his stalwart support of gay rights, first as a California state senator and then when he was elected mayor in 1975. During a scene in the mayor's office, Milk enlists Moscone's support against Prop 6: "The gay community will have your back from now on. On all issues. I hope you'll have ours." But after the referendum's defeat—a triumph that proved the gay vote was critical to any liberal candidate—Milk shows up at Moscone's office and takes advantage of the situation to turn the screws on him for help with another tough issue. "Let me remind you that you're up for reelection," he tells him, to which Moscone replies that Milk has begun to sound like Boss Tweed. "A homosexual with power," Milk muses as he lets himself out. "That's scary."
It's a chilly scene, but the line gets a laugh nonetheless, largely owing to Penn's winsome performance. He's nailed the Jewish irony that proved such a political asset to Milk—no small accomplishment for such a self-serious actor—and it brings the character to life. For all the political maneuvering, Black and Van Sant present Milk as the hugely likeable person he was, alternately tender and galvanizing, which invites any viewer, gay or straight, to walk in his shoes. In one eerie scene Milk is strolling down Castro at night when a darkened figure appears behind him; Harvey glances over his shoulder, then breaks into a run. Street killings of gay men in the Castro were commonplace then, and although Milk ducks into the safety of his camera store, you begin to understand the real-life stakes of his crusade. In another scene Milk takes a call from a gay teen in Pennsylvania who's read about him in the newspaper and whose parents are about to ship him off to a reprogramming facility. Milk urges him to run away from home, but then a wider shot of the teen reveals that he's confined to a wheelchair.
This universalizing of Milk's experience is particularly evident in the love story between Milk and Smith, though in this case the filmmakers might be fairly accused of gilding the lily. According to Shilts, Milk was promiscuous by nature and polygamous by philosophy. Neither of these facts necessarily belong in a movie about his life, but they most certainly would have complicated Black and Van Sant's portrayal of him as a hopeless romantic who watches his one true love slip away. After Harvey and Scott break up, driven apart by the stress of politics, Milk takes up with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), an ardent but emotionally unstable young man who offers him mindless release from the pressures of his career. When Harvey, celebrating his election at Castro Camera, catches a momentary glimpse of Scott on the street outside, Van Sant invests it with all the melancholy longing of Bogart watching Bergman board her plane at the end of Casablanca.
Of course the legislative battles of the gay-rights movement are far from over, as we all learned on November 4 when voters in California, Florida, and Arizona banned same-sex marriage. Milk hits theaters amid a renewed debate over the place of homosexuals in American life, and the much-discussed role of Hispanics and African-Americans in passing California's Proposition 8 may prompt some activists to reconsider the wisdom of counting on traditional Democratic constituencies to protect gay rights. Whether the cause will help the film is anyone's guess, but there seems little doubt that the film will help the cause. If Harvey Milk were alive today, he'd be urging gay people to get even more involved in public life, to make themselves even more visible in more parts of the country. Milk honors not only his life but his ideas by putting a human face on the issue—even if that face belongs to a straight guy like Sean Penn.v
For more on movies, see our blog On Film.