"I am Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you," screams Sean Penn into a bullhorn while playing the slain San Francisco City Supervisor. Those words still resonate today. If Harvey Milk were alive today, Proposition 8 would never have seen the light of day. Harvey Milk inspired hundreds of thousands of gay people in his lifetime and now with Gus Van Sant's new film Milk, he has the opportunity to reach millions more in death.
Milk begins with a collage of black and white news footage of mostly men being rounded up, handcuffed and piled into paddy wagons. Shot after shot show people burying their faces in their hands dodging the harsh lights of the news crew. One customer even throws his drink at the camera. This was the closeted life of a gay man in the late 60s/early 70s. This was a life of fear and a life without power. It's in response to that life without power that Harvey Milk finds his voice.
We first see Sean Penn as Harvey Milk as he records his thoughts to tape in the event that he is ever assassinated while in office. He begins to look back at his life and we meet him again earlier in his life. He's a closeted gay man living in New York City turning 40 and after picking up James Franco in the subway he tells him that he hasn't accomplished anything in his life. "I need to make a change," he says. He and Franco move to San Francisco to drop out and there he does begin to change. He first becomes a business owner by opening up Castro Camera and then becomes inspired to run for City Supervisor several times until he finally wins.
Sean Penn plays his part with subtle brilliance. He's completely inspiring in moments and he captures the spirit of a masterful politician. James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch are also terrific, as is Allison Pill as his lesbian campaign manager. Gus Van Sant does an amazing job with this film. There are a few over-the-top sentimental moments, but overall Milk packs a wallop. I think what really struck me the most is how what happened in 1978 still resonates today. We've come a long way baby, or maybe not.
In the film, Harvey Milk is battling against Proposition 6, which was intended to discriminate against the hiring of gays and lesbians. It played upon people's fears of having their children taught by gay people. It was backed by religious leaders including the very outspoken Anita Bryant. Sound familiar? Harvey was able to organize people and defeat it. If only we had him now.
Last Saturday afternoon I attended a rally in City Hall to lend my voice in support of marriage equality and in protest of Proposition 8. I was among thousands who turned up that day in New York along with hundreds of thousands more who turned out in almost every city across the country. My friends in LA marched in the heat and my friend in Phoenix uploaded pictures to Facebook. Seems like if there's any silver lining to glean from the passage of Proposition 8, it has now galvanized and energized so many people gay and straight to take to the streets to vent their anger. It also struck me as I looked around that day at how many young people were taking part. I think that would have made Harvey Milk very proud. It was in the youth that he saw the most opportunity to inspire with hope. I think he knew that it was their voices that were the voices of the future that could most make a difference.
Near the end of the film and near the end of Harvey's actual recording he says, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." He was prophetic about his own life and prophetic in regards to many of those closet doors. We've moved forward on many issues, but it seems like with Proposition 8 we took a huge step backward. It's not about blaming any one group or organization. It's time to acknowledge that proponents of Prop 8 were better funded and better organized. The got their message out successfully. Now it's time to take a page out of Harvey Milk's book. In the film, he felt that if every gay person came out to their co-workers, friends and families then they could shatter fears and stereotypes. If they know us, then they are more likely to vote with us and support us and our cries for civil rights. We need our straight allies and we need our friends and our families to stand with us now more than ever. We could also use Harvey Milk back on our side.
This is an interesting short film by filmmaker Jenni Olsen shot on the set of Milk which uses the actual audio tape by Harvey Milk:
575 Castro St. from FilmInFocus on Vimeo.
Follow Matt Budd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ibookmatt