Director Gus Van Sant’s biopic of murdered gay activist Harvey Milk begins where the story ends—with a tearful but stalwart Dianne Feinstein announcing Milk’s death, along with his colleague, San Francisco mayor George Moscone, at the hands of their fellow elected official, City Supervisor Dan White. On this archival footage, people gasping and crying “No!” can be heard over Feinstein’s grim announcement, as shock and loss become almost palpable in the crowd gathered at the news conference.
But as Van Sant—and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black—back away from the archive, they pick up their story with Milk (played with grace, humor, and respect by the remarkable Sean Penn) alone at a kitchen table with a 1970s-style tape recorder and microphone, narrating his life’s events to be listened to only in the case of his assassination. Milk, the film tells us, was paranoid but also prescient about his untimely demise; he never believed he’d live to see 50, and in fact, he died much too early, at 48.
Threading his story through the lens of Milk’s backward glance nicely frames the film in history, and also accomplishes one of Milk’s most important choices, which is to resist the pull of hagiography and to paint Harvey Milk in all his complexities. Milk’s narcissism, as he becomes more and more enamored of the limelight, is one of his least flattering aspects, and Van Sant doesn’t shy from scenes in which Milk engineers his own heroism. But at the same time, these moments only underline the man’s humanity; Harvey Milk had his good points and his bad, but he truly was one of the first out, nationally visible heroes of the contemporary lesbian and gay movement.
In Van Sant and Black’s telling of his story, Milk becomes a political activist nearly by accident. Shortly after his fortieth birthday, he moves with his young lover Scott (the adorable, sweetly empathetic James Franco) from New York to San Francisco, leaving behind years as a rather square insurance salesman to grow his hair long, wear jeans, and open a camera store on Castro Street in what was just then on the verge of becoming the city’s (if not the world’s) most famous gay (male) neighborhood. After he and Scotty proudly hang their “Castro Camera” sign in the window and kiss each other in the street to celebrate, a fellow merchant flaunts his own homophobia, letting Milk know that gay people aren’t welcomed as business owners.
Appalled and instantly righteous, Milk begins his first bit of organizing, spreading word on the street that anti-gay businesses should be boycotted. When his strategy works, and it’s clear that gay (male) dollars have some power and influence, the exultant Milk treats his former antagonist with good humor and friendship rather than derision. Milk truly was a “big tent”-style politico; he even worked hard to befriend Dan White, his fellow City Supervisor who would eventually take his life.
That we know what’s coming throws the events of the film into high relief and paints them with just enough irony to temper what might otherwise have been simple hero-worship. Each of Milk’s actions contributes to his own success and to greater visibility for gays (and presumably more than a few lesbians, although only one is featured in the film). At the time, the virus of what would eventually morph into the evangelical religious right was just starting to spread, inspired by a pretty white singer in Florida named Anita Bryant. Bryant’s campaign to repeal the Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians becomes the inciting incident in Milk’s life, as his own activism begins to take on national overtones.
Van Sant intercuts more archival footage, news reports from Walter Cronkite featuring gay rights stories, and an interview with Bryant and a very young Tom Brokaw, pushing the woman on what’s clearly her hatred for “homosexuals.” Bryant’s campaign comes west in the form of Proposition Six, or the Briggs Amendment, which would have prohibited gay men and lesbians and their supporters from teaching in the California public school system. The pernicious referendum would have legislated and condoned virulent homophobia, and Briggs pushed hard on all the hot-button stereotypes to get the proposition passed: gay men as pedophiles, the analogy of homosexuality with bestiality, and the inability of “queers” (used then to mean something much more derogatory than it does now) to reproduce.
The same ridiculous accusations continue to be trotted out by anti-gay marriage radical rightists today, and rarely do we hear the kinds of smart ripostes that Milk used in his debates with Briggs. Watching the film as it narrates activism from the 70s, it’s difficult not to be saddened that these puerile arguments about whether gay people deserve civil rights still rage.
One of Milk’s achievements is to put its subject’s story in a larger historical context. The film opens with still more black-and-white footage of police raids on gay bars in the 1940s and 50s, heartbreaking scenes of beautiful young men (mostly white, well dressed, and probably middle class) hauled out of bars by uniformed officers herding them with into vans to place them under arrest. The men shield their faces from the camera or look sad, ashamed, or defiant, but for the most part, an air of familiar resignation pervades these scenes. These police raids, prior to the Stonewall uprising in 1969, were regular entertainment for police in large cities across the country. Seeing actual news footage underlines how not so very long ago, gay male sexuality (or even simple public fraternizing) was criminalized.
In this context, the fact that Milk was out, proud, and loud about gay rights clarifies how remarkable his activism was, even twenty-odd years after the dark days for gays of the 1950s. Stonewall had happened by the time Milk left New York for the Bay Area, but aside from the import of its symbolic gesture, the uprising did little to actually change laws. Milk arrived in San Francisco and began his long fight for political office when very little (if any) pro-gay legislation had been essayed anywhere in the country.
Milk tells the story of the birth of an activist, someone fighting not just for himself, but for a nascent community that he in some ways helped to form. The film, to its credit, also clarifies that Milk’s wasn’t the only political line toed at the time. Scenes with David Goodstein (Zvi Howard Rosenman), the then-powerful owner of The Advocate, the first national gay and lesbian publication, and his minion (the wonderful Stephen Spinella), in which Milk asks for their endorsement for one of his numerous campaigns for public office, nicely illustrates the differences between an accommodationist, assimilationist gay politic and Milk’s strategy of insisting that gay male visibility will make a difference in public consciousness. That Milk’s tactic proves most effective should remind us, even now, that the politics of radical difference might be as effective as claiming that gay people are just like everyone else.
Although Milk thinks he’s the radical edge, he is judged by his young friend Cleve Jones for his willingness to work within the conventional political system to create change. Jones eventually joins Milk’s gang, and becomes one of his trusted advisors and most vigorous, creative promoters. But Van Sant and Black take care to demonstrate that the gay political movement of the late 1970s was comprised of different camps that were strategically at odds. (Jones, who advised on the film, went on to establish the Names Project, which tours the AIDS Memorial Quilt around the country as a poignant reminder of people who have died from the HIV/AIDS pandemic.)
The film also casts a witty glance at what it means to achieve a modicum of public power, in scenes in which we see Milk working as a San Francisco city supervisor: trading favors to achieve the numbers for his own pet projects; bullying Mayor Moscone into promoting his agenda and his methods; and demonstrating to Jones how to use the fabulous public staircase of San Francisco’s City Hall as a kind of theatre, making a Norma Desmond-esque entrance up the slick marble steps dancing with his head thrown back and arms out.
Milk clearly revels in his achievement and the influence he accrues, but he keeps a wry attitude toward what it means to be singular and gay in the halls of power. He works tirelessly to create coalitions, to fight for working people and unions members as well as to form common cause with African-American voters and politicos. Milk’s achievement is in its refusal to simplify what Milk’s rise to power meant—and how long it took to accomplish—and its nuanced exploration of how groundwork is laid for political change to make its torturously slow way through the system.
Because he’s taken such care, Van Sant shows Milk as a man in a constant state of becoming, even as he singlemindedly pursues his goals. Scott can’t withstand Milk’s intense, consuming dedication to the cause. He leaves Milk, even as he continues his own activist contributions. Milk’s new lover, Jack (Diego Luna), is a Latino queen attracted to Milk’s fame, who’s finally unable to contain the jealousy he feels for Milk’s more passionate relationship to his cause.
Age plays an important role in Milk. When Milk and Scott first meet, Scott is young, sporting a curly blond thicket of hair. He calls Harvey, “Old man”—at just 40, Milk is already over the hill under the terms of gay male youth culture. But Scott ages along with Milk as they both grow into their lives as political people. What age means becomes malleable, along with other styles and roles. For instance, Van Sant captures how clothing is really costume; Milk’s hair style and sartorial choices change to fit his political goals. He wears suits and ties while his friends dress in t-shirts and bell bottom jeans, because he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed by how he looks.
The politics of clothes recur throughout the film, and illustrate the different ways of being a gay man in the 1970s. One of Jack’s flaws, in fact, is his relative flamboyance, compared to Milk’s more buttoned-down staff of compatriots. That he wears a fur-lined hood on his red jacket, and carries himself with a more mincing affect, marks him as the tragic queen in the company of men determined not to fit prevailing gay stereotypes.
In fact, the more outré denizens of Castro culture are absent from Van Sant’s film. Even more conspicuously, so are the lesbian activists who surely played a larger role in San Francisco’s political scene in the mid- and late-70s. Allison Pill does a lovely job playing Anne Kronenberg, who joins Milk’s campaign as marketing director when Scott leaves. Kronenberg accuses Milk and his cronies of being afraid of women and teases them about their all-male fraternity. Milk insists that they take her in, but the character becomes the token lesbian. Milk doesn’t even let the poor woman have a girlfriend or another lesbian comrade to make her less singular.
In a recent interview in Curve magazine, Kronenberg noted that there really wasn’t a unified lesbian and gay movement in the late 70s, and that Milk was in fact one of the first gay men to reach out to lesbians to consolidate political power. She also says that she was busy working in feminist causes at the time, a situation mirrored, no doubt, by many middle-class young white women.
Milk’s cabal is also all white, except for one Asian-American man Milk consistently refers to as “Lotus Blossom” and the tragic Latino, Jack. The lack of people of color or women in Milk’s ranks might be a factor of his historical moment, but it would have been generous for Van Sant and Black to find ways to note and comment on this history. Although they lack diversity, Milk’s “cabinet” includes able friends and loyal supporters with unshakeable belief in the importance of his candidacy and his message. His collection of beautiful boys truly cares for one another, and they spark off each other’s ideas intellectually and politically. Politics, in Milk, is about tactics and strategy, but it’s also about conversation, about getting to know who people are, what they want, and how they feel.
Activism happened without the internet to bring people together in the 70s, a point Van Sant makes eloquently in a scene in which Milk proposes a rally and Cleve Jones sets in motion what used to be called “phone trees” to get the word out. Jones calls someone who calls someone who calls someone, as increasingly smaller square images of men holding phones to their ears multiply across the screen. The labor of politics becomes palpable in this image, along with the determination and dedication of the gay activists surrounding Milk to make change happen by getting people involved.
The enormity of the spontaneous candle-lit march from the Castro to City Hall to honor Milk’s life and to mourn his death ends Van Sant’s film, with Scott Smith and Anne Kronenberg staring in wonder and pride at the huge line of people marching in silent sadness toward the site of Milk’s murder. The moment is moving and beautiful; the fact that it’s true makes it wrenching.
Van Sant cast Milk with a number of gay actors who don’t necessarily play gay roles. To see the always terrific Denis O’Hare, for example, play the arch-conservative John Briggs, while Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, reminds audiences that sexual identity is performative in the largest sense, in that anyone can capture its surface codes and subtleties of gesture and style, whether playing straight or gay. Van Sant’s choices also underline that gay actors play straight all the time, and that there’s really no longer anything radical about straight actors playing gay. Penn’s performance as Milk shines not because of the risks he takes as a straight actor playing a gay activist, but because his acting here is so genuine, present, “real,” unfettered, and heart-felt. Milk was a man of large gestures, bold presence, palpable affection, good humor, and compassion; Penn captures these qualities with commitment and grace.
While Penn’s charisma as a actor is unparalleled, I’m not sure he quite captures what must have been the utter magnetism of Harvey Milk behind the megaphone on his soap box (literally, in his first claim on public attention, Van Sant has Milk climb onto a wooden box marked “soap”). I found the rally and demonstration scenes some of the least convincing. When he yells, “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” Penn sounds a bit canned, as though these moments are truly too historical for him to imbue with really heightened feeling.
The actor shines in the more spontaneous moments of Milk’s life and career: talking to a young wheel-chair bound gay man who thinks he can’t escape his parents’ determination to set him straight; debating Briggs point by point in publicly staged conversations; and most effectively, recording his thoughts about his history into his tape recorder, ruminating alone at the end of his life.
Likewise, while Van Sant eloquently intercuts archival footage with his fictionalized treatment, the rally and demonstration scenes, shot in color and carefully art-directed and costumed, appear as fake as indeed they are, compared to the hard-edged black-and-white realism of the documentary and news clips they play beside. That the staginess of those scenes rings false isn’t so much a complaint as an observation about the challenges of mixing genres to make a point. But because Milk is a deeply pedagogical film, as well as a poignant, moving, emotional dramatic one, the combination of real footage and fiction somehow works.
I came out in Boston in 1977-78, when much of Milk takes place. The first political demonstration I ever attended was a gay rights rally against Anita Bryant, outside her hotel room in Copley Square. I didn’t know other gay people. I was just beginning to suspect that “lesbian” might name me and my desires. I took myself to the rally on Boston’s T trains, and blended into a crowd of people who seemed happy and charged by being together, despite the fact that their presence was meant to protest Bryant’s bigotry and ignorance. Self-acceptance, let alone pride, was something I was struggling toward.
Hearing the speeches, and more memorably, listening to the crowd sing Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul” and Tom Robinson’s “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay,” let me know that, clichéd as it sounds, I wasn’t alone, that there were others like me, and that they’d found language (and even music) that described who they were, who they wanted, and how valid were those desires. Watching Milk let me relieve a foundational part of my own history.
Milk is a sympathetic, sensitive portrait of an ordinary man who’s changed by being in a certain place at a certain time. At the end of one of Milk’s first scenes, when the clock strikes midnight, ushering in Milk’s 40th birthday, he turns to Scott, whom he’s just picked up on a subway platform in New York, and laments that he hasn’t yet done anything important with his life. Going to San Francisco puts Milk in the crucible of change for gay men and lesbians. From there, a combination of circumstance and his own lust for life and liberty propel him into activism.
Milk died a hero, but he didn’t set out to be one. He opened himself with compassion and caring; he was smart and had an acute sense of possibility and righteousness; and he knew, as profoundly as Barack Obama 30 years later, that people need hope. He used humor to great effect, but he was deadly serious about the importance of his activism and the necessity that people be able to look forward to a real future. Milk’s triumph is in how sad it leaves us that Harvey Milk died way too soon. We still need his heroism and his faith.
The Feminist Spectator