I meant to write a review of Milk upon watching it, but kept getting halted and hindered in that attempt. Friends would ask for a casual review, but I wasn't able to take the pieces and thoughts and weave them into a coherent retelling. As a young dyke who grew up on those San Francisco streets and in those City Hall hallways, and as a woman alive in this time of struggle within the LGBT Movement, well, full objectivity to the story appears beyond my capabilities.
I watched Milk in a theater on one of the first cold nights of the coming winter in New York City in 2008, although it was hard at times to remember my exact time or place. Next week I plan to rewatch the movie at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, steps away from where Harvey's camera shop stood. This time I'll be in the company of friends who I last saw as they rushed to get married outside the office in City Hall where Harvey was murdered, before the state voted to take that right away from them.
The movie is based on a certain, now almost eerie, fluidness of time, while at the same time being about a distinctly specific time. This is what makes it so perfect and brilliant that Gus Van Sant took the lead in telling the story, as he has a certain knack for merging lines between now and then or here and there.
There is archival footage of now Senator, then Board President, Dianne Feinstein, as she announced the deaths of Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone, and the audible gasps from the listening reporters, which never fail to shatter me upon viewing. There is the well worked in footage of a young Walter Cronkite, in cut after cut, documenting the anti-gay rights initiatives being passed through throughout the nation.
The film begins with archival footage of men in a gay bar being filmed as cops have busted them for the fact of their gayness and their congregating. This is no Stonewall Rebellion footage, however. Most of these men are dressed like any unassuming neighbor of that era, covering their faces and bowing their heads before one angry queer tosses his cocktail defiantly at the camera. The movie places you in a context, and wants you to understand that positioning, before it moves to tell its story.
These are the themes that live beyond even what the movie could have hoped for: context and the relevancy of stories. The continuation between those two forces -- context and story -- interweave on the screen and out into the world in which the movie is to be released this week.
I watched the film next to friends with whom I had attended last Saturday's Anti-Prop 8 rally. We had spent the night before the rally up late, making signs, writing a speech and talking movement strategy. The morning before the rally we had a news crew filming us at brunch, as we continued to talk strategy. These friends would regularly poke and prod me during the movie as different locations -- City Hall! The Castro! -- were shown, asking where I lived in relation to those landmarks. I was one of those queer kids who moved to San Francisco and was raised by the political culture and community, although that experience came twenty years after the runaway gay kids in Milk roamed those same streets.
I grew up on stories from those who were around then. As a homeless dyke activist I kept my only bag of clothes in an office in that City Hall, while I lived in a nearby homeless shelter and served on a city commission that was housed a floor above where Milk was murdered. The folks who were mentored by the folks who were mentored by Milk were the ones ushering my generation into an understanding of those stories and context. They were also the ones very much playing the same necessary role to us younger queers throughout time, giving us visual roadmaps to lives and potentials beyond what we were told existed as gay kids in all the small towns we came from.
The telling of good stories always becomes about more than just the original story itself. The most necessary stories stay alive as the contexts they are told in change and repeat in different form.
When the filming of Milk took place in San Francisco, just a year ago, no one could predict that gay marriages would become law in California, only to be voted away months later, weeks before the release of the movie. The film spends a decent amount of time chronicling Harvey Milk's work to fight 1978's Prop 6, which sought to ban any LGBT individuals and their straight supporters from being public school teachers. Despite all polling and political expectations, Prop 6 failed.
When Milk first debuted in San Francisco in late October, across the street from the cameras of the red carpet was a collection of activists, chanting and holding signs reading "No on 8." Story and context leapt from the screen onto the streets outside.
As many other reviews will point out, Milk does a respectful telling of the time and the story of the man and his context. Those who knew him, both those who advised on the film and those who watched it before its official release, seem generally pleased with the telling of history and the astounding ability Sean Penn has to bring Milk back into human form. The beautiful accuracy allows for the story to be more clearly just what it is, the showing of a time in history and a community that emerged to shape how we all live today.
Knowing the story going in, I was emotionally braced for certain incidents in the film. There were certain city locations and placements inside City Hall I expected to affect me. I knew the end of the story, and generally avert my eyes from movie violence, but held my armrests and prepared to bear witness to the brutality of what occurred.
An equal moment that required emotional bracing was the scene where Prop 6 failed. Viewed through the eyes of all the strife the LGBT Community had recently worked through with the passing of Prop 8, it was almost alarming to watch the reenactment of a celebration, 30 years prior, where success had been won.
Although my first response to that scene of Prop. 6's defeat was one of hurt, from the irony of how differently the community felt about our campaign this election season, that sensation lasted only a moment. As the characters in the film rejoiced and celebrated in the joy that comes from winning an election no one thought you could, my mind quickly leapt to the only other experience I've had similar to that, which occurred on the same night that Prop 8 passed.
Before the results of Prop 8 had been calculated, we knew Obama had won. As someone who was out there for Obama (pun intended) on that historic night of the Iowa Caucus (yes, with my rainbow Obama shirt on, while monitoring a caucus in a high school in Des Moines), when no one thought we could even win that event, let alone the Presidency, the sensation of joy and accomplishment on the night of November 4th was overwhelming. I had been in Columbus, Ohio for the final days of the campaign, but after the polls closed, another dyke and I jumped into our rented Chevy and drove fast to Pittsburgh, with NPR on the radio and my iPhone and text messages keeping me up to speed on the results, which went something like this: Pennsylvania! Ohio! OMG, we won it!? We won it?!? And then, waiting and waiting, as we pulled into Pittsburgh at exactly 11pm EST, when the networks could finally call it, and the streets turned into a jubilant celebration, and the realization slowly started to occur: We had, truly, won!
We were driving to Pittsburgh to be in the celebratory company of other Obama gays. We wanted to be with the queers who hung the giant rainbow flag in Obama's Des Moines office, nearly a year prior. I wanted to be with the staffer who I drove around with in the new years' snow, talking queer theory and the role of our movement in this Presidential election. We had talked about Harvey and worked to highlight his work in our own, as I also pushed to get Milk released before the election.
And so, thirty years after the election where Prop 6 was defeated, I danced and screamed and cried with a collection of queers who were intricately involved in winning a Presidential race everyone told us would be impossible. We were there at a standard campaign after-party, where the mood was perhaps shockingly somber. Despite the raucous which was occurring across the world, which I would later catch on YouTubed videos, those of us who had so much worked to make it happen were largely solemn -- be it out of shock, exhaust or a looming sense of responsibility and respect for what had occurred.
In the early hours of the morning, we finally were able to grab our first drink. The queer folks ended up at a back room table, taking it all in. Eventually we toasted to the night and Obama's recently deceased grandmother before Obama's Deputy Director of LGBT Affairs started repeating first quietly, and then gaining in oomph: "President Barack Obama. President Barack Obama. President Barack Obama!!!"
Our entire table joined into the chant until we were all screaming and pounding on the table and rose to dance and shout as it became real to us what had been accomplished. Saying it made it real. And it was a decidedly queer moment, as the rest of the bar of party goers turned to watch us and examine our loud hooting and hollering as we started to dance our way out of the party. At about this point, the campaign's Deputy Director did an equally decidedly queer dance and extravagant bow before loudly yelling, as we approached the door, "The queers have left the party!" And everyone warmly smiled at our flamboyant exit and there we were, gay as we all could be, fully players in the game in which we won a nationwide campaign for the White House. As we stepped outside, we all started checking our iPhones, only to then come across the updated results for Prop 8.
The story and context of Milk, and of the times in which Harvey Milk lived and led, make clear the continuation of this struggle we still find ourselves in. As soon as you lose a battle, another one looms before, giving you another opportunity to try to win. You win a battle, and before you can catch your breath, another struggle is on the horizon. Nothing about progress allows for much in the way of rest, but nor does it allow for much to remain stagnant.
And so, as the character of Harvey declares in the film, when talking about what he expected people to do if Prop 6 passed, we found ourselves after the passage of Prop 8 as a hurt community getting angry and taking those responses out into the streets and into political organizing and, eventually, more hope.
Whether or not the LGBT Community is in full agreement that marriage equality is everyone's idea of an ultimate goal -- whether or not our allies have ever felt that all of our constitutionally protected rights were potentially as easily stripped away as we saw ours were -- in the aftermath of Prop 8's passage it is clear that there is an attack on equality and progress that needs to be fought against with a unified, organized and inclusive force. And although I wish Milk had been released before that vote, and although I wish the vote on Prop 8 had turned out differently, if we have to live this present story, in this time and context, well, I am glad to have one more inspired version of Milk's leadership and experience to help us figure out how to get from this place to a new place more built on vision, beauty and equality.
I know I ended my last Huffington Post piece with this same quote, but I think it bears repeating, and that Harvey just might also approve:
"You are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you. More life. The great work begins." -- Tony Kushner
And yes, we should also repeat, as Harvey was known to say: you do gotta give them hope. The life and story of Harvey, as told through Milk, helps to do just that. The story and the context from the screen leap out at us and give us a map of where to go from here. We have won before; we will win again. And as we continue to build alliances and work, we won't get anywhere unless we hold onto that hope.