Harvey Milk was many things in his lifetime: business owner, boyfriend and lover, gay rights activist, opera aficionado and, ultimately, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Since his assassination in 1978 by a disturbed fellow Supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin, who follows his award-worthy portrayal of President Bush in W. with another fine characterization), Milk has been regarded by many in the GLBT community as a pioneering hero and even a martyred saint.
The late politico would likely consider his canonized status amusing, but he would also probably relish it. As Milk shows, he didn’t hesitate to take center stage whenever it would benefit his political rise and/or empower the GLBT community of San Francisco. Milk’s courage during what were still the fledgling years of the gay rights movement remains impressive, and inspiring.
Milk, with a great screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (writer-producer of HBO’s Big Love), is framed by and interspersed with scenes of Penn-as-Milk recording his real-life political journal, which he specified should be played only upon his assassination. The narrative proper begins in New York City, with Milk meeting the man who would become his long-term lover, Scott Smith (played by Spider-Man’s James Franco), on the night of Milk’s 40th birthday. Milk complains to Smith that he hasn’t accomplished anything significant in his life to date, and they drink a prophetic toast to change.
A year or so later, the two re-locate to San Francisco, where Milk opens a camera shop in the city’s Castro District. They initially experience discrimination as an openly gay couple, but soon the Castro has become the city’s gay center thanks to Milk’s community-organizing efforts. Still, the residents remain subject to gay bashings and regular harassment by the police.
Milk’s drive to stop this mistreatment propels him into political life. After three unsuccessful attempts at running for office, he is elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977 (along with White). Milk quickly finds himself in what would become the biggest fight for GLBT rights in his life, as Anita Bryant, conservative Senator John Briggs and other anti-gay crusaders target California. Briggs introduces Proposition 6, which sought to identify GLBT teachers in public schools and remove them from their posts.
It is in detailing the GLBT community’s fight against Proposition 6 that Milk most mirrors history as recent as one month ago. Although the battle to defeat Proposition 8’s attempt to amend California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage wasn’t as successful (at press time) as the effort against Proposition 6, the movie nonetheless serves as a reminder to us and our supporters that we must not quit. As Milk himself would say, “You’ve gotta give them hope.”
Milk is a must-see, not only for its dramatization of critical GLBT history but also for the superb achievement of its cast and creative team. It is lovingly produced by Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen and Michael London, who between them have had a hand in such GLBT fave films as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; The Family Stone; Down with Love and American Beauty.
Out director Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) was a perfect choice to helm this production. In addition to his expert handling of the actors, he occasionally uses archival footage of locations and events to both heighten and blur the distinctions between Milk’s time and today. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides capture daytime and nighttime moments with equal skill. Among other standout scenes, there’s a singular, brilliant shot of a gay bashing’s aftermath and Milk’s conversation with the investigating police officer, all reflected on the side of the victim’s bloodied but still-shiny alert whistle.
The movie’s only misstep is its somewhat heavy-handed approach to Milk’s death. First, it perpetuates the myth that Milk was killed the day after attending a performance of the opera Tosca, which in reality he did several days before. Then, as Milk is dying in the wake of being shot multiple times by White, he gazes out the window at the adjacent opera house. Milk was a lifelong opera fan and is even the subject of an opera, appropriately titled Harvey Milk. However, it is an unnecessary stretch to juxtapose his murder with the suicide of Tosca’s heroine, as the filmmakers are seemingly doing.
But back to Milk’s strengths and the film’s chief attribute: Sean Penn. The Academy Award-winning actor isn’t so much impersonating Harvey Milk as channeling his spirit. Penn hasn’t been this loose and purely enjoyable on screen since he played stoner Jeff Spicoli in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He effortlessly nails Milk’s gestures and charismatic ability to leaven seriousness with humor. Penn also isn’t afraid to get hot and heavy with both Franco and Diego Luna (Before Night Falls, Y tu Mamá También), the latter of whom plays Milk’s unstable lover Jack Lira. I have no doubt that Penn will be Oscar-nominated for his performance as Milk, and he might even win a “partner” for his Mystic River trophy.
Since Milk is such a gay-centric movie, I am anxious to see how it is received by non-GLBT audiences. It could be of great benefit and service to take a straight family member or friend who is relatively unaware of our community’s history with us to see Milk. We need all the allies we can get in our continuing struggle for equality. This film is a powerful and inspirational history lesson.
UPDATE: Milk is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.