Though the American Dairy Association might resent infringement of their wholesome product brand, his name really was Milk. When Harvey Milk was killed, on November 27, 1978, it echoed an assassination in Memphis 10 years earlier. The protagonist of Milk, Gus van Sant’s wrenching rendition of a hero’s brief run, was the Martin Luther King Jr. of the gay-rights movement. Milk’s speech on Gay Freedom Day, delivered five months before his death, was the “I Have a Dream” for gays and lesbians. “All men are created equal,” insists Milk, who defies a death threat to mesmerize the crowd outside San Francisco’s City Hall. “No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.” Quoting reverently from the Declaration of Independence and the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, Milk speaks out forcefully against closeting and cowering. It is one of four or five transcendent moments in a film that redeems from platitude the word “inspirational.”
Milk has been memorialized with a plaza, a high school, and a biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts, the author of And the Band Played On. Execution of Justice, a play by Emily Mann, dramatizes the trial of Milk’s murderer. But the revolution in tolerance that Milk hoped to lead has sputtered, and he himself is not a living memory for anyone under 30. A couple of days before viewing Milk, I took a look again at Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, a powerful documentary that richly deserved the Oscar it received in 1984 and remains a classic in the cinema of social justice. Milk, a dramatization that appropriates footage from the earlier film, in no way displaces it. But, particularly through Sean Penn’s mastery at inhabiting the body and personality of an unlikely martyr, Milk seems an essential fable for our time, a time when it is still common to be shunned, fired, attacked, and killed on account of sexual orientation.
With premonitions of his own demise, Milk recorded a personal testament days before he was gunned down in his office by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White. Milk is framed and punctuated by images of Milk in his kitchen telling his story into a tape recorder. It begins on his 40th birthday, when, at a New York subway station, he picks up a stranger to help him celebrate. “Forty years old, and I haven’t done a thing I can be proud of,” he tells his new lover, Scott Smith (Franco). Shortly after he and Smith move to California, Milk becomes the proud proprietor of a camera shop in the Castro district, the San Francisco neighborhood that was fast becoming Harlem for gays and lesbians. Castro Camera becomes an informal political clubhouse, especially after Milk rallies local residents against homophobic businesses. After two abortive campaigns for the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s city council, he runs for the California Assembly but fails at that as well. Following a debate, his opponent, Art Agnos, a liberal Democrat, advises Milk that he needs to do more than just rail against what is wrong: “In this town, you gotta give them a reason for optimism, or you’re cooked.” Hope becomes a theme of Milk’s remaining two years. “Without hope life is not worth living,” he will tell his tape recorder. “You’ve got to give them hope.”
Hope is kindled when San Francisco reorganizes its Board of Supervisors to elect members by district rather than at large. (At about the same time, San Antonio’s adoption of single-member districts for its City Council empowered Latinos). Running now from District 5, which took in the Castro, Milk wins handily, making him the first openly gay non-incumbent man elected to public office in the United States. Milk not only depicts but also transmits the exultation of momentous victory. Euphoria erupts again later, with a statewide triumph, when Milk and his allies defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned homosexuals from teaching in California public schools. Milk engineers passage of a gay-rights ordinance in San Francisco, but he also concerns himself with mundane matters such as dog excrement and pay raises. Milk antagonizes White (Brolin), a former fireman who seethes with resentments, by opposing relocation of a mental-health clinic. When White impulsively resigns his position and then demands reinstatement, Milk lobbies Mayor George Moscone against a second chance.
During a private conversation portrayed in the film, Milk warns Moscone that returning White to the Board of Supervisors would cost him the votes of the city’s gays if he sought reelection as mayor. The veiled threat presumably persuades Moscone to decide against White, which in turn leads White to slip into City Hall and murder both Moscone and Milk. The implication is that Milk is indirectly responsible for Moscone’s death. However, since neither Milk nor Moscone lived to tell the tale and were the only ones present, I wonder what basis screenwriter Justin Lance Black had for constructing the conversation as he did.
Less than two weeks before the assassinations, Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered, and 900 zealots committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Most were from the Bay Area, and though the events in Jonestown surely affected the local atmosphere, they are absent from Milk. So, too, is Sally Gearhart, who teamed with Milk to debate supporters of Proposition 6. The film omits the trial, in which, using the “Twinkie defense” of claiming that junk food drove him to it, White, who later committed suicide, in effect got away with murder. Milk concludes with a procession through the streets of San Francisco that mixes actual footage with a reenactment. Though illuminated by thousands of points of candelight, the scene is electrifying. More than 30,000 mourn a death but also celebrate a life.
Barely a month ago, California passed Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. In many other states, especially Texas, where hate crimes proliferate, gays lack basic legal protections. Religion is enlisted to authorize sexual tyranny, and Sarah Palin has succeeded Anita Bryant, the pretty and pretty vacant beauty queen who became the poster girl for “family values.” Yet, despite the persistence of bigotry, Milk learns: “You’ve got to give them hope.” The human kindness of Milk does just that. •