CJSF volunteer, Kate Lerman, attended the new Gus Van Sant film "Milk," a bio-pic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected into office in the United States...
When I was 16, I first read a biography on Harvey Milk, the first non-incumbent openly gay man to be voted into public office, as a city supervisor, in the United States. It is called The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, written by Randy Shilts. It’s rich in detail, going back to Milk’s upbringing in Long Island and his transformation from a seemingly unremarkable buttoned-down white-collar New Yorker to a follower of countercultural, flower-power ideals.
Milk the film focuses, and effectively so, on the period of the politician and activist’s life when he decided that the only way to combat anti-gay views and discrimination was through visibility and politics.
Harvey Milk was 40 years old when he and partner Scott Smith moved from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco in the early 1970s. Some time before the district gained its reputation as a Gay Mecca, and in the midst of that transformation, Milk and Smith started a business, Castro Camera, which became the base of Harvey Milk’s political operations. Milk was at the forefront of the burgeoning gay rights movement in San Francisco, particularly the Castro district.
A big focus in the film is the fight to defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned openly gay people from serving as teachers across the state of California. Looming over the film is the stark parallel between Prop 6 and the recently passed Proposition 8 (which overturns a State Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage).
Political maneuvering, the highs and lows of grassroots activism, and other points the film brings up detailing Prop 6, echo in current gay rights struggles. This heightens the film’s urgency and relevance to present times in California and the rest of the United States; even viewers unfamiliar with the issues can see the parallels between the two battles.
Milk Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was born a year after Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. To create a picture of Milk the man, and Milk the movement-leader, Black’s youth and curiousity combine with his own research and interviews of those who were close to the gay leader. Unlike many biopics which tend to simplify a person’s life to a few “Key Moments”, Milk avoids turning into a somber, by-numbers portrayal. Instead, Milk’s creators instill the film with exuberance and an optimism that would make its subject proud.
Director Gus Van Sant’s last few films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park) eschewed conventionality. Milk is expertly guided by Van Sant in a relatively straightforward way, yet with no hesitation and unflinching dedication to the story and the true events it depicts. While the focus is clearly on Milk, the film is also a true ensemble, anchored by a pitch-perfect, humanizing Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
While the portrayal of Milk’s core campaign team is based on solid research and first-person accounts and is mostly true to life, the lack of women in the film proves disappointing. The sole female in Harvey Milk’s immediate crew is Anne Kronenberg (played by Toronto-born Allison Pill), the campaign manager in Milk’s successful bid for the office of city supervisor. This is accurate as far as Harvey Milk’s immediate circle is concerned, but the idea that women had little to no role to play in the burgeoning gay rights movement of the 1970s is dubious. This omission is salvaged by an expertly constructed scene where Milk’s crew first meets Kronenberg, when she asks what role lesbians would have within Harvey Milk’s campaign and crusade, insisting that it can’t just be a boys’ club, as everyone’s rights are at stake.
The bottom line: Milk is expertly constructed and smartly multi-layered, meaning it appeals to long-time admirers of Harvey Milk, those that have only just heard his name, and those in between. The film doesn’t fall apart under the weight of its subject matter, it doesn’t preach, or turn its subject into a hero or saint. The importance of new generations understanding Harvey Milk’s legacy cannot be understated, whether the info is trickled on through conversation, this film, biographies like The Mayor of Castro Street, or the fantastic documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. So most significantly, Milk serves as one very solid step towards discovering the remarkable man at the film’s core, and his impact on his, and our, time.
Canadians may not have a Proposition 8 to contend with, but one thing Harvey Milk understood better than most is that human and civil rights are never set in stone, whether they’re written in law or not. They are never simply given and stay there; they are obtained and kept when ordinary people decide that they are worth fighting for, and most importantly, when people’s voices continue to be heard.
Milk plays daily at Fifth Avenue Cinemas on Burrard Street.