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Review by Liz Highleyman
Milk, Gus Van Sant's epic Harvey Milk biopic, brings the late supervisor's legacy to life, but a stinging electoral defeat in November emphasized in a more visceral way that his struggle for gay equality is not yet complete.
The film, which opened Thanksgiving week to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Nov. 27, 1978, murder of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White, transformed the Castro early this year, as numerous storefronts took on vintage facades and thousands of extras recreated scenes of mass demonstrations.
Milk opens with the supervisor recording a "political will" to be released in case he was assassinated, which was seen as a constant threat. The story line follows Milk, then a buttoned-down conservative working for a New York financial firm, as he meets his lover, Scott Smith, in a subway station on his 40th birthday. Milk soon trades his suits for jeans, grows a beard and a ponytail, and in 1972 the two men move to San Francisco, where they open a camera shop on Castro Street in Eureka Valley, then a working-class Irish neighborhood on the cusp of major change.
Though he bears little physical resemblance to Milk, actor Sean Penn turns in a riveting performance, capturing Milk's charisma, wit, and hunger for the political spotlight.
Though screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was only a young child at the time, his script captures the zeitgeist of the 1970s, aided by extensive consultation with Milk's surviving associates. Period footage is interspersed throughout the film, and the re-creations are so faithful it can be difficult to tell one from the other.
In many respects, the film is as much about the city as it is about the man. Old-timers will enjoy playing "spot the character"--looking for both Milk contemporaries like Supervisor Tom Ammiano playing cameo roles, and actors portraying San Francisco icons such as marijuana activist Dennis Peron.
Milk first ran for citywide supervisor in 1973. Following this unsuccessful attempt, he donned a suit and cut his hair, but he lost again in the 1975 supervisor race and in a 1976 run against Art Agnos for state Assembly. He finally emerged victorious in 1977, after a switch to district supervisor elections allowed minority groups to elect one of their own.
Though widely hailed as the "Mayor of Castro Street," Milk also represented the Haight and Noe Valley--then a largely working-class neighborhood that was starting to gentrify as the young people who had flocked to the city during the Summer of Love sought a quieter place to settle down and raise families.
"Harvey worked very closely with the Noe Valley Merchants Association and regularly contributed to the Noe Valley Voice," recalled Anne Kronenberg (played by Alison Pill in the film), who as a "tough dyke" in her early 20s volunteered as Milk's campaign manager and who now is a deputy director for the Department of Public Health. If memory serves, Kronenberg added, the merchants endorsed one of Milk's opponents in his winning race.
Voice editor Sally Smith remembers joining the large and boisterous crowd outside Milk's camera store the night he was elected, becoming the first openly gay man to win a major public office in the U.S. In his Voice column--titled "Milk Harvey"--the new supervisor answered readers' questions about various issues of the day, including his infamous pooper-scooper law.
A skilled coalition-builder, Milk's agenda extended beyond gay rights to encompass support for labor, tenants, and seniors. "Harvey was all about reaching out to the disenfranchised, not just gay men," said Kronenberg. "He really got the connections."
"I'm so excited to have new generations exposed to Harvey's legacy," said District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who represents a subset of Milk's former District 5. "Harvey knew how to connect with different communities." (In 1977, Dan White's Sunset District was designated as District 8.)
Milk's political debut coincided with another event that would prove equally momentous for the gay community: the religious right's entry into politics, heralded by Anita Bryant's campaign to overturn a gay antidiscrimination ordinance in Dade County, Fla.
Milk's leadership in the 1978 fight against California's Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative), which sought to ban gay people from teaching in public schools, plays a central role in the movie.
Although filming was mostly completed when the California Supreme Court ruled in May that same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marriage, it is impossible to miss the parallels between the Prop. 6 battle and this year's bitter fight over Proposition 8, which amends the state constitution to eliminate that right. Proponents of both initiatives raised fears about harm to children, while opponents debated the wisdom of "degaying" the campaign with a generic focus on civil rights.
"To convince the 90 percent to care about the 10 percent, we have to tell them who we are," Milk insists in the film, urging gay people to come out of the closet and leave the ghetto. "We have to let them know that they know us."
Watching a preview of Milk a few days before the Nov. 4 election, it seemed evident that the film's reception would depend heavily on the Prop. 8 outcome, with the "No on 6" victory scenes evoking either elation that one of the gay community's final goals had been achieved, or despondency that the movement still had a long way to go.
As it happened, Prop. 8's slim victory galvanized the gay community and made Milk--and Milk--more relevant than ever. The star-studded premiere in late October sold out weeks in advance, and the first public showings at the Castro Theatre Thanksgiving weekend drew lines extending around the block. The downside is that the movie may come across like a propaganda piece, and therefore may be avoided by people who do not already support gay equality.
Asked about the similarities between Prop. 6 and Prop. 8, Milk protégé Cleve Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the film)--then a young rabble-rouser who went on to a long career in political activism--emphasized that in 1978 he and his comrades felt a much more acute sense of fear.
"Then, it seemed like a snowball effect," he said, as cities across the country repealed their gay antidiscrimination laws. (Perhaps the biggest surprise for younger viewers is that towns like Wichita, Kan., and Eugene, Ore., actually had gay rights ordinances in the 1970s.)
But while the Briggs victory was a rare bright spot amid a series of losses, Jones suggested that Prop. 8 is a temporary setback in an inexorable march forward. "Back then, we were losing and losing and losing. Today, we are winning and winning and winning," he said. "History is on our side, and things are going in our direction."