Milk goes into the Oscars with eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, for Sean Penn. Aside from 2005’s Brokeback Mountain this is one of the only recent big-budget films to deal sympathetically with the lives of gay people.
The movie is framed by a spoken narrative that Harvey Milk recorded “only to be played if I am assassinated.” But the dramatic tension in the film doesn’t depend on the anticipation of Milk’s death. Instead the viewer is drawn into the story by Milk’s transformation from a closeted insurance salesman (who jokes that he is “responsible for all the evils that afflict society”) to a beacon of hope for the modern gay liberation movement.
As if on cue, the film’s release date—December 22, 2008—coincided with a national staging of protests against the passage of California’s Proposition 8 and similar ballot measures elsewhere that eliminated the right of same sex couples to legally marry. Milk, then, turning the dial of time back a click, holds up a mirror to the American psyche even as it pays homage to a father of gay liberation.
Behind the film’s opening credits, newsreel footage of men in mid-century suits being corralled into paddy wagons from bars and other meeting places gives a quick history lesson, shows the trauma that police brutality, criminalization and public scorn have inflicted on the gay community. We hear the echo of that theme when we learn that the film’s antagonist, Dan White (played by Josh Brolin), is consigned to the hellish prison of internalized homophobia. “He is one of us,” Milk confides to his staff after White pays a visit to Milk’s new office in City Hall. And, later, White drunkenly confesses to Harvey, “I have issues.”
While White and Milk (what an ironic pairing of names!) are forever linked by Milk’s murder, it is another couple that is central to the film—the sumptuously portrayed romance between Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, who deserved an Oscar nod). From the first tender sex scene between Milk and Smith, openly gay director Van Sant demonstrates a masterly feel for the subtle electric fire that crackles between men who are in love with each other, and in lust. But the romance does not stop there. Milk and Smith develop into an intimate couple who keep each other in check. Smith comes to represent the earthy, live-for-the-day aspect of their gay partnership, while Milk embodies the loftier, shooting-for-the-stars energy that will eventually propel him into politics.
Refreshingly, when Milk and Smith separate it’s not because gay love is impossible (see: Bent, Querelle, Brokeback Mountain, Wilde, etc.) but because political life is stressful. Their falling out also augurs Milk’s growing involvement in the “political machine” and the potential for reactionary violence that a gay man’s reaching for power entails. Toward the end of the film, Milk watches with fascination a staging of Puccini’s Tosca, which ends in several tragic, twist-of-cruel-fate deaths. At the denouement, Van Sant has Milk staring out of a City Hall window at the opera house as he is fatally shot by White.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For all its virtues, the film does miss a few golden opportunities. Milk often speaks about the role of the “gay movement,” but what exactly is this movement? There are assorted references to the history of the oppression of gay people, as in Nazi Germany and under the thumb of oppressive laws and Christian fundamentalism in the United States. But the vision of this movement could have been elaborated more clearly with a gesture toward Harry Hay, an earlier “father of gay liberation” who was doubtless an influence on Milk. Hay’s argument that homosexuals are in fact “a people” with a purpose in society is a message implicit in everything that Milk carries forward.
Also, the film does not find a way to highlight more effectively Milk’s vision of forging a coalition between gays and other oppressed minority groups, namely (non-gay) people of color, women, and the elderly. In The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 documentary that this film is based on, the budding politico says, “Gays, ethnic minorities, and feminists need to link together so that we can affect the total direction of the city [San Francisco]” toward more inclusive and therefore more authentic forms of democracy and social justice.
The movement as portrayed in the film is predominantly white—which may have been a reflection of the demographics of the gay Castro in the 1970s; however, Milk’s awareness of the deep, wide roots of civil rights was clearly a more pronounced aspect of his vision than was captured in this film (footage in The Times of Harvey Milk reveals more direct involvement with people of color). Nevertheless, the theme of unity is rendered movingly in Milk—the filmmakers gathered more than 2000 volunteers along with 200 paid extras to recreate the candlelight vigil for the slain hero, and to create, in effect, a new act of mourning. (It was shot in two takes and “later digitally enhanced to achieve the the look of the crowd winding all the way down Market Street to the Castro from our shoot location near City Hall,” one of the filmmakers explains.)
At a rain-drenched press conference after his victory in the race for a spot on the Board of Supervisors, Milk jokes, “Anita Bryant said gay people brought drought to San Francisco. Well it seems that the drought is over.” The joke is also on Milk, for his ending of the drought leads to a fresh deluge of collective pain in the politically rudderless decades that followed his assassination. (White himself becomes the symbol of the most difficult-to-embrace aspects of gay liberation—one’s disowned, despised, and fragmentary self.)
The film thus leaves the viewer to consider the direction of the modern gay liberation movement. Where do we go from here? Milk underscores the importance of combining the dual strategies of carrying the torch—in the streets, the courts, the voting booth, and the movie theater—while also turning that light inward.