At the beginning of the 2008 biopic Milk, we find San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) talking into a tape recorder, making out what appears to be a will. The timeline is November 18, 1978—nine days before Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) are assassinated by disgruntled ex-City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). I hope you’re not saying right now “Thanks for the spoiler warning, pally”; the deaths of both Moscone and Milk aren’t exactly a state secret—there’s even archival footage of Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein relaying the sad news via press conference (Feinstein would become acting mayor, setting the stage for her eventual political rise as the currently seated senior U.S. Senator from the Golden State). Harvey wasn’t a soothsayer, either; he had received death threats all during his life in politics and just shrewdly gambled that in the event of an assassination, it was best to be prepared.
I purchased a DVD copy of Milk on sale a few months back…but to be honest, I was hesitant to sit down with it. I’ve long had a fascination with the history of the man who became California’s first openly gay elected official, first reading about the events of that fateful day in 1978 in—this is really going to sound weird—The Book of Lists. I later caught the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) on VHS during those crazy customer service representative days at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video…which, to be honest, is probably the best way to learn about Milk’s history. (The documentary was inspired by Randy Shilts’ 1982 book The Mayor of Castro Street—the title being Harvey’s unofficial designation by himself and friends—which itself had long been proposed as a feature film; it languished in development hell for many years with Robin Williams’ name frequently floated about as the actor who’d portray Milk.)
It would be director Gus Van Sant (whose Drugstore Cowboy is one of my true movie favorites) who’d bring Harvey Milk to the silver screen in a well-received production (script by Dustin Lance Black) that was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director for Van Sant), bestowing trophies to Black and Sean Penn for his portrayal of Milk. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Milk, though I will state for the record that if you haven’t yet seen The Times of Harvey Milk you’ll want to watch Van Sant’s film first and then the documentary to get a more rounded picture of a man described by his one-time campaign manager (and played in the film by Alison Pill) Anne Kronenberg as a “visionary”: “He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”
Milk the movie begins in 1970, with its titular protagonist—unhappily working for an insurance firm—about to turn 40 and picking up a man who eventually becomes his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). The duo decides two years later to go west, young man and relocate to San Francisco, which is developing a reputation as a haven for its burgeoning gay community. Milk starts a small business in Castro Camera, though he doesn’t quite get the welcome-wagon-greeting he had been hoping for (he’s refused membership in a small bidness association).
As unfriendly as his fellow bidnessmen and neighbors are, the police are even worse. Frustrated by the hostility of the cops supposedly there to protect and serve (the gays in the area eventually take to wearing whistles around their necks so that they can summon help if they’re attacked), Harvey commits himself to gay activism, and vows to run for a slot on the city’s Board of Supervisors. Milk’s rise in politics is not a speedy one—he runs races in 1973 and 1975 before finally winning in 1977 (by that time, Frisco changes the way supervisors are elected citywide, allowing districts to choose their own representatives) with a campaign in 1976 for the State Assembly in-between the last two races. Harvey’s victory is accompanied by wins by a diverse coalition that includes the board’s first single mother, first African-American woman, and first Asian American. The list of firsts also includes Dan White, an ex-cop and firefighter whose social conservatism is a marked contrast to Harvey’s progressive populism. Though Milk initially attempts to find common ground with White and engage him as an ally, that relationship soon sours (Dan is convinced Harvey’s betrayed him on a vote involving the construction of a psychiatric hospital in White’s district) and leads to tragedy.
Sean Penn became an Oscar-winning Best Actor for a second time (his first was for 2004’s Mystic River) and I’m not going to lie to you: I personally think the guy’s a jackass, but he’s phenomenal as Harvey Milk. Penn gets a boost from the superb makeup (including a prosthetic nose and teeth) used to transform him into the charismatic politician…but capturing Milk’s genuine rapport with strangers and his self-deprecating humor about his sexuality requires more than just a putty proboscis. Penn modulates his portrayal just so that his Harvey never comes across as a candidate for sainthood (the real-life Milk had a difficult personal life, including a romantic relationship with a troubled young man named Jack Lira [portrayed in the film by Diego Luna]) but remains inspiring enough so that the audience can see the indelible influence Milk had in the gay rights movement.
The highlight of Milk is the famed Proposition 6 battle in 1978; the proposition was also known as “the Briggs initiative,” named after state senator John Briggs—who, emboldened by the success of anti-gay activist/orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant in smacking down non-discrimination laws in Florida and Oregon, proposed legislation that would not only call for the mandatory firing of gay teachers…it would give a pink slip to any public school employee who supported gay rights. Milk fights Briggs at every turn, most notably in a series of public debates in which Harvey matter-of-factly refutes the senator’s arguments that gay schoolteachers will make their students gay by pointing out that his parents, friends, and teachers were all heterosexual—so what would explain Harvey? “If it were true that children mimicked their teachers,” cracks Milk, “you’d sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.” (It was driving me nuts as to where I had seen Denis O’Hare—the actor who plays Briggs—before and then after the movie remembered him as “Charles B. Pierce, Jr.” from the 2014 reboot of The Town Who Dreaded Sundown.)
Special care was taken to insure Milk was as authentic as possible with period hairstyles and clothing (you’ve never seen so many lapels and leisure suits in all your born days), not to mention the casting; bonus features included on the DVD highlight interviews with both the actors and their real-life counterparts (a few of which also have cameos in the film), and they’re spot-on in practically every instance. (Matt Damon had to drop out of playing Dan White due to a scheduling conflict but I honestly believe Brolin is far more convincing.)
The lesson that I took from Milk—which rings true if you apply it to the state of politics today—is that if you want to make changes in the system, prepare for a struggle with that portion of the Establishment that likes the status quo just fine, thank you very much. In one scene in the movie, Harvey and Scott have a go at persuading Advocate publisher David Goodstein (Howard Rosenman) to back his candidacy only to be told David’s going with a straight (but gay-friendly) choice. “The more ‘out’ you make us, the more you incite them,” explains Goodstein. “Step back and quiet down.”
“I’m not a candidate, I’m part of a movement,” the no-bullshit Milk tells him as he prepares to leave. “The movement is the candidate. There’s a difference. You don’t see the difference…but I do.” It’s a declaration that resonates today, particularly as those people finally fed-up with the “cautious incrementalism” of the Democratic Party take Harvey’s words to heart: “It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.'”