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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Got Milk?

When filming wrapped on Gus Van Sant’s latest project in San Francisco only eight months ago, California was a different place. There was no way he, his cast or crew could have known that before releasing their labor of love, Milk, into American theaters, Proposition 8 would rescind the right of gay couples to marry statewide. Ironic timing, some might call it; maybe even a jinx. Undeniably, Prop 8’s shadow undercuts Milk’s ability to delineate “how far we’ve come” in the last thirty years. Nonetheless, this dramatization of the career and martyrdom of California’s first openly gay elected official offers insight on how to cope with the current issues facing the LGBT community.

Critical to its allure is the perennial realization that the personal is the political, and so following, that every person is a political force. Harvey Milk’s real life fight to organize the ‘cruisers’ of his Castro neighborhood into civil rights crusaders renders enough drama to rival any dreamed-up plot. Under his leadership, ordinary gay citizens and advocates organized their own business bureau when no one else would protect them, successfully boycotted the discrimination of Coors Brewing Company, campaigned against police brutality, and defeated the Briggs Initiative, which sought to fire all homosexuals and their sympathizers from California public schools. But among these victories, Milk also showcases the dark days of defeat, backstabbing, and love lost – aspects as integral to long-term struggle as the resilience and courage on which we (and Hollywood) generally prefer to focus.

This is not the first time a filmmaker has attempted to capture the essence of Harvey Milk, a man beloved and persecuted in life, revered and idolized since. Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk crystallized its subject’s heroic status more than twenty years ago. Van Sant’s first challenge in resurrecting the story was whether he could bring anything new to that inarguably breathtaking tribute. He begins by introducing two periods of Milk’s life at once – as a closeted 40 year-old, frustrated with his paper-pushing life in New York, and years later as an accomplished San Franciscan politician, calmly recording his memoirs in the event of assassination.

As with Epstein’s account, the reality of Milk’s 1978 shooting and the identity of his killer – fellow city supervisor and self-proclaimed family man, Dan White – are divulged at the beginning with archival footage of the shocking televised announcement. But Van Sant goes on to offer much more than a reenactment of Epstein’s documentary; his version distinguishes itself by giving equal time to Milk’s political failures and personal sacrifices. This two-steps-forward-one-step-back trend so typical of progressive movements puts Proposition 8 into perspective and casts Milk’s optimism as all the more bold, his losses all the more sympathetic.

Sean Penn, a committed method actor, utterly transforms into the whimsically effeminate Milk without subscribing to wholesale stereotypes. Sensitive imaginings of his character’s intimate and undocumented history take us beyond the quest to mobilize gay activism and into a portrait of a truly trailblazing American icon and a human being with his own love story. Milk’s romance with long-time partner Scott Smith (James Franco) assumes prevalence not featured in Epstein’s policy-focused documentary. Van Sant thoughtfully highlights the significance of their rapport and its demise under the strain of Milk’s early failed political campaigns. In sharing their story, Van Sant also makes a conscious decision not to avoid the taboo of explicit gay sexuality and affection. Revealing its characters as capable of both tender, sincere monogamy and spontaneous, indulgent promiscuity, Milk builds on Brokeback Mountain and notable others in the growing effort to humanize homosexuals to mixed audiences.

No doubt this effort, like every one before it and all the ones to follow, will be lauded by some viewers and derided by others. There is no escaping the controversy of an openly gay herald who famously launched his speeches by announcing, “I’m here to recruit you!” But outside of the religious and political context that construes him as a subversive, Harvey Milk was, simply, a charming individual, a shrewd businessman, and a (legitimately) maverick politician who met a tragic, cold-blooded death. Especially during this turbulent episode in gay acceptance, and particularly after choosing as President another minority who campaigned on the same ideals of hope and progress, this story is as compelling and timely as ever, and in Milk it lives on where no bullets can touch it.