By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2008)
“The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” -Harvey Milk
This past Thanksgiving quietly marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more shocking American political assassinations to take place in the latter half of the 20th century. On November 27th, 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and District Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in cold blood in their respective offices at City Hall; both men were shot repeatedly at point blank range. Even more shocking (and bordering on the downright bizarre) was the fact that their killer was a fellow San Francisco politician-former District Supervisor Dan White.
It’s an anniversary that is traditionally ignored by the MSM, who apparently have decided, for whatever reason, that its significance lacks the social impact and historical gravitas of the JFK, RFK and MLK killings, which each receive the requisite nod once a year from an appropriately “solemn” news anchor. I would hope we could rule out the fact that Moscone was a socially progressive city leader and that Milk was America’s first openly gay politician of significant influence as a decisive factor in this continual oversight? I mean, this is 2008, fergawdsake-we’ve advanced farther than that in this country, right? (Don’t answer that, and whatever you do, don’t mention Proposition 8). Well, I’m here to tell you that if enough people see it (and “get” it), there’s an inspiring new film about the life of Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant that just might be the first “baby step” in rectifying that.
Milk is one of the most straightforward efforts from the frequently abstract and self-consciously arty filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting back in 1997, yet arguably stands as his most significant work to date. The key word here, as a matter of fact, is “restraint”. Van Sant has wisely restrained from allowing his usual overdose of style to overpower the substance of his subject. The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black, one of the primary writers for HBO’s Big Love) is richly engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. And most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance that lies at its heart from Oscar shoo-in Sean Penn, who never falls into exaggerated caricature, opting instead to essentially channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual.
The film picks up Milk’s life journey at age 40, which was when he experienced the epiphany which led to him to dedicate the rest of his life to public service. Using his dingy little camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as his HQ, Milk quickly garnered a reputation as the city’s leading gay activist, thanks to his relentless drive and a natural gift for community organizing (hmm…he started his political career as a ”community organizer”- now does that remind you of any president-elects that you know of?).
Beginning in 1973, Milk began the first of three unsuccessful runs for a San Francisco District Supervisor position. His perseverance finally paid off in 1977, when he won his seat. Although he wasn’t going to wield the political clout of a mayor, governor or senator, his victory was still a symbolically empowering milestone in the history of the gay movement in America. His agenda was not strictly limited to gay issues; he also became an important advocate for other groups who traditionally suffered from phobia-induced oppression, like the elderly, poor and the handicapped.
He entered the national spotlight when he helped spearhead the anti-Proposition 6 campaign in 1978. Also known as the “Briggs initiative”, the proposed legislation would have given California school districts the right to identify and fire gay and lesbian teachers and administrators, and ban any future applicants as well. Milk also became the symbolic counterpoint to singer Anita Bryant, whose very strident anti-gay stance became the prototype for the type of right wing, crypto-fascist fundamentalist Christian lobbying that we are still saddled with to this day. Milk accomplished a lot during his 11 month tenure; from a historical perspective you could say it was the gay community’s rendition of JFK’s figurative “Camelot”.
Van Sant actually had a tough act to follow, in the form of one of the most riveting and emotionally resonant documentaries that I have ever seen, The Times of Harvey Milk. Released in 1984 and directed by Rob Epstein, the film deservedly picked up a Best Documentary Oscar. It recounted an incredible real-life tale that was equal parts Greek tragedy, black comedy, political potboiler and film noir.
One of the most compelling elements of Epstein’s film were the snippets of audio from a tape recording Milk had made shortly before his death, which he directed to be released to the public only in the event of his assassination. The sad, funny and insightful auto-biographical musings on that tape resonate beyond a morbid premonition of fate; they crystallize as the dedicated vision of someone who was determined to make a profound difference, and to inspire others to tap into those resources within themselves.
Black transcribes verbatim excerpts from the tape as the framing device for his screenplay. It’s a wise creative choice, because it gives Milk a tragicomic Sunset Boulevard sensibility; even though we know from the get-go how horribly the story will end, it is somehow comforting to have the wry, self-aware “postmortem” narration of the doomed protagonist to accompany us on his journey.
The film abounds with wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and the ubiquitous Josh Brolin (as Supervisor White). Van Sant captures the period flavor of late 70s San Francisco to a ‘T’; I can attest to that because I lived there from 1979 to 1981. My girlfriend and I lived in the Sunset district (Irving Street, for you curious locals) but we would head over to the Castro district now and then to catch a matinee at that neighborhood’s iconic architectural landmark, the Castro Theater. At any rate, having observed the milieu firsthand, I have to say that Milk really transported me back to that era.
It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this film will inspire you, and the continued relevance of the issues it addresses certainly does not need to be spelled out to Digby’s readers. The year isn’t quite over, but this looks like a definite contender for one of my picks for the “top ten” of 2008. In the meantime-run (don’t walk) to see Milk.