Crying Over Killed Milk
Two Writers on the Artistry and History of Milk
The Mayor of Castro Street Finally Gets His Hollywood Close-Up
by David Schmader
Every biopic is saddled with the oxymoronic task of surprising audiences with a story they already know. This problem is particularly acute with Milk, Gus Van Sant's long-gestating film biography of the slain gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk, whose story has not only been documented in news reports and history books but has already fueled a classic film—The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary of 1984, which captures the man and his era impeccably and continues to rank among the greatest documentaries ever made.
Now comes the Hollywood version, which retells the amazing Milk story with the help of fastidious production design and an A-list cast. The story, for those who don't know or can't remember: In the early 1970s, 40-year-old Milk ditched his closeted Wall Street life for San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop, began organizing the Castro's gay community, and started a career in politics. In 1977, Milk was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay person elected to political office anywhere ever—a burst of glory that lasted until 1978, when Milk became the first openly gay politician to be slain by a psychotic political peer, falling victim (along with Mayor George Moscone) to the fatal gunfire of former city supervisor Dan White.
The basics of the Milk saga—the triumph and tragedy, if you will—cement the story's historical importance. But it's the weird little details that make it fascinating. Wisely, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black draws the richest stuff from both the aforementioned documentary (gay-rights bigot Anita Bryant plays herself via newsreel footage) and Randy Shilts's classic Milk biography The Mayor of Castro Street, which enables Black to flesh out the film's somewhat programmatic march through Milk's Greatest Hits with odd and telling idiosyncrasies that bring the whole story to life once again.
As always, major props must go to Milk the man, the gay late bloomer who became a political force, and whose life story is packed with enough gay drama, political intrigue, and true crime to fuel one of Milk's beloved operas. As for the living artists behind Milk, they deserve props of their own. Working in his straightforward Hollywood mode, director Van Sant gets the job done and stays in the background, his presence felt most strongly in the film's comfortably unabashed sexuality. (There's tongue in the first five minutes.) But the lion's share of credit for Milk's success belongs to star Sean Penn, whose devotion to the film helped secure its production, and whose performance in the title role is a major accomplishment: quietly amazing, simultaneously lived-in and spontaneous, his best ever.
Gay-jà Vu: The Political Lessons of Milk
by Eli Sanders
Through the random chance of screening schedules, I ended up watching Milk a few days after America elected its first African-American president and about a week before gay Americans took to the streets in hundreds of American cities to protest the passage of California's gay-marriage-stalling Proposition 8. From that vantage point, temporally suspended between the two events that defined the election for me and almost everyone I know, Milk was, in part, a premonition. I left the theater feeling that the Seattle protest march on November 15 might very well look like Harvey Milk's 1970s San Francisco.
It did, minus the mustaches and whistles and long hair (sigh), but with the added power of being part of a national outcry rather than just a one-city demonstration project. Now, watching Milk in the afterglow of those Prop 8 protests, one is likely to experience an odd kind of political flashback, with the onscreen protest scenes from a decades-distant history triggering memories of real-life protest scenes from the very recent past.
What Americans—especially gay Americans and their political allies—make of this backward déjà vu will be important. There will no doubt be a certain pride at feeling that Milk's legacy of in-the-streets activism is alive and well. But, if the facts are considered, beneath that pride will be a certain amount of disappointment. Disappointment that we're still having this insane debate so many years after Milk, with his trademark humor and fury, called it insane in the streets of the Castro. And disappointment that in 2008, gay Californians were not able to beat back an antigay statewide proposition in the same way that Milk, as the film reminds us, beat back the antigay Proposition 6 in California in 1978.
The cold fact is that gay-rights advocates, for all their outrage and action after Prop 8 passed, were not able to successfully implement the simple lessons of the Milk-led victory over Prop 6: Talk to your opponents, win over as many of them as you can on the merits of your argument, and, because you'll never win them all over, do everything in your power to expand your urban base and drive your core supporters to the polls. (One has to wonder about the impact Milk's lessons might have had on Prop 8, had it been released on screens throughout California before the vote.)
Yes, many details of the two proposition fights are different: Prop 6 was about very basic civil rights (the right of homosexuals to teach in public schools and the right of nonhomosexuals to "support" them) and not about the somewhat tougher issue of marriage. Yes, Prop 6 had even Ronald Reagan against it at the time. But 30 years have passed since 1978. A new Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was against Prop 8. And huge resources were devoted to the gay-rights side, more than Milk could ever have marshaled.
So what happened?
The answer probably begins with the old story about how successful movements create their own obsolescence. Harvey Milk's legacy was to make gay Californians, and ultimately all gay Americans, more comfortable. The problem, it seems, is that too many got way too comfortable far too soon. Milk would have been furious.