I never saw Harvey Milk as a living, breathing person as I was born just before he died. Seeing the businessman-turned camera man-turned SF City Supervisor-turned gay icon only in hindsight through the lens of historical footage (wild eyes, signature fist-pumping gesture, trademark lines and all) made him appear as more of a superhuman freedom fighter, sacrificing his own life so that gays everywhere wouldn't have to sacrifice theirs.
On Nov. 27, the 30th anniversary of his death, acclaimed director Gus Van Sant brings him down to earth and to wider audiences with the biopic "Milk."
Chronicling the life and times of still largely unknown historical maverick Harvey Milk (expertly portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn), from his period as a closeted corporate drone in New York City to his tragic murder just shy of 50-years-old, the film is punctuated by scenes in which he tape-records his memoirs, which he instructs should only be played upon his assassination. In so doing Milk comes across as nervous and paranoid that his end of days are near -- and he has good reason to be.
The politician predicts that as a progressive leader he could be killed at any moment -- he even tells his partner Scott Smith (well played by James Franco) that he will not make it to 50 -- and so refuses to waste any time.
From moving cross-country to San Francisco and opening his camera store, to forming a gay merchants association and becoming the Mayor of Castro St., to becoming the first openly gay politician in the world and defeating Prop 6 (which would have denied gay teachers and their supporters jobs in the California public school system), he's a man on a mission -- and that's to bolster gay rights at a time when gays are still harassed by police, discriminated against at workplaces, and viewed by many as thieves and rapists. Not too different from today, right?
While this pre-AIDS period in San Francisco is often romanticized as a convivial era of discos and bath houses, the whistles that gays wore around their necks were more than mere disco accessories. They were often a cry for help from an impending gay bashing. Van Sant does an excellent job at conveying the fear that many gays faced when even just walking down the street, because as Milk strolls home alone at night, he looks over his shoulder more than once.
At the same time, although we eventually see Milk, like civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy before him, dying for his beliefs, he is no one-dimensional saint in Van Sant's film. Firstly, the workaholic who wants to save the world cannot salvage his closest, most personal relationships. His lover Scott eventually tires of his constant campaigning and leaves him; the troubled Jack Lira (a role that is poorly executed by an overly-dramatic Diego Luna) kills himself, and Milk admits at one point that most of his partners have attempted suicide.
Second, as Milk grows more powerful, he becomes more arrogant and much more a part of the political machine that he riles against when competing for state assembly against (future San Francisco mayor)Art Agnos. There's one scene where he even threatens his longstanding ally Mayor George Moscone that if he gives his nemesis, City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) his job back after the latter resigns, then he will see to it that Moscone will lose all gay support for reelection. Moscone then compares him to "Boss" Tweed, to which Milk retorts with a joke about the irony of a gay with power.
A homosexual with clout was and perhaps still is a heterosexual's nightmare, and it is this move to prevent White's rehire that puts Milk on a collision course with the ne'er do well supervisor.
It's interesting that as Van Sant chose to humanize Milk, he also does the same for White. In "Milk" White is not a homophobic monster who's cukoo for Twinkies, although it's probably easier for us to view him in that regard, instead of as a downtrodden, blue-collar type, who just wants to be able to provide for his family, and like Milk, win the respect of his community. Rather than writing Milk off as a fag in the film, he seems to respect him, and even envy his position as the tables are now turned; the gay man is empowered and the straight, ex cop is weakened. So when he kills him it comes off like less of a hate crime and more about professional resentment. Even Penn's Milk seems to sympathize with White, suggesting that White is a gay man, tortured in the closet, as he used to be; so one could also interpret White's brutal act as killing off his own "gayness." Interestingly, he would commit suicide in 1986.
But regardless of White's motivations, he single-handedly took one of our greatest leaders away from us, and in the same way that Altamont officially closed the age of the hippie, White ended the era of 70's gay liberation with shots heard around the world.
To gay Van Sant, making "Milk" must have been as important as directing the Holocaust story "Schindler's List" was to Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg. It's for this reason that I imagine that many of the self-indulgent motifs we've come to associate with the director -- the long shots, the obsession with beauty, and the general sense of ennui -- are absent from the work; because for the first time the film is not about Van Sant, but about something greater.
To take this to another level, I would suggest that it's even greater than the actual politician, himself. Leaving the film, you're surely left with a sense of loss for the much-missed city supervisor and activist, because there's no telling what Milk might have accomplished had he been able to finish even a single term in office. But even here, aren't we also mourning the loss of something greater? Milk offered gays a level of empowerment that was lost to us in the post-AIDS, Reagan years, and that maybe we've never reclaimed in the 30 years since. Just substitute Prop 6 with Prop 8, the recently passed constitutional ban on gay marriage in California.
The main difference, though, between then and now is a general sense of apathy. Where were today's Harvey Milks when Prop 8 was on the ballot? Are there any? Two things that Milk taught us were to come out and show the world that we're living, breathing people who are people's sons, brothers, and even fathers; and to get out of the bars and into the streets, and not be complacent. This is Milk's greatest legacy, as a source of inspiration to continue with the struggle. Over the past few weeks since the passage of Prop 8, I've been comforted by a renewed sense of gay activism in the country, because our rights are always on shaky ground and it's up to us to defend them. Sometimes it takes a movie to remind us of that fact.
(Images courtesy of Focus Features)