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Milk: A San Francisco’s Story

“My name is Harvey Milk, I want to recruit you…”

milkEnsconced on the window seat of a cafe on Castro Street, I’m looking at the now empty space across the street where filming crew decorated it to be Harvey Milk’s camera shop. In the space of just a few weeks last March, the crew descended upon the Castro to film Milk – a biopic about Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street” (a book with the same title that I plan to read soon) and the first openly gay man to win office just about anywhere. Sense of gala quickly percolated the neighborhood during filming. I couldn’t help but walk wide-eyed every day through the set, as it were, of Castro Street circa 1978.

The film begins as Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) makes a recording on November 18, 1978 to be played in case he is assassinated. The two-hour movie follows Milk from New York to San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop on Castro Street and used his political savvy and a surging liberation ideology to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Less than a year after being elected, Milk was shot and killed in City Hall by the recently resigned supervisor Dan White, played by Josh Brolin in the film. The film tells its story in fatefully somber, operatically enhanced flashback, with Milk speaking into a tape recorder in eerie anticipation of his possible assassination.

milk1The movie opens with real jump-cut scenes of police’s raids in bars, arresting homosexuals. Then Milk begins the recording with his meeting of Scott Smith (James Franco) in the New York subway, and we get the first of the series of flash-backs (which eventually become flash-forwards) that are the film. Milk and Smith become lovers and move to the Castro Street area of San Francisco. They open a camera shop, but are quickly disillusioned with their bigoted reception by straight store-owners. Milk longs to make Castro Street a haven (and a safe place) for gays in San Francisco, and decides to run for office, which he does three times with slowly increasing success and hand-wringing. He enlists the help of friends, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and after local and national setbacks, is finally elected.

Penn’s physical resemblance to the late supervisor Milk is uncanny. He exhaustively disappears into the title role, but what’s more striking is the spiritual transformation. Penn gives us a man who was once closeted and now, as if in response, lives his life completely in the open. He challenges everyone on his campaign to come out. He’s spontaneous as Penn has never been spontaneous. He’s emotional, vulnerable and generous with his laughter. Penn plays him as an utterly liberated man, and this liberates Penn as an actor.

milk2Van Sant’s goal in Milk is to give the gay rights movement the grandness and impact of the civil rights movement. To do that, Harvey Milk must be made into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr., who led a moral crusade, fully knowing that he might be murdered along the way. The scene that speaks to me most is when he tries to solicits endorsement from the then owner of Advocate magazine, who in turns advises him to back down and not to invoke an anti-gay backlash. Milk asserts that his running for supervisor is neither for personal nor political gain. It’s a movement for gay rights and civil rights. The movement represents the gay people, not himself.

Indeed, history came back home to where it started three decades ago. On the night of Milk‘s world premiere, The Castro Theatre vibrated with gay rights past and present. As the creators and stars of the film and local politicians ran the red-carpet press gantlet, a throng of people across the street waved “Vote No on Prop. 8” signs and shouted at every passing car that honked. The measure will eliminate the right to same-sex marriage in California if it passes next week.In truth, the King comparison only goes so far. Yes, Milk led a crusade against the Briggs Initiative, led by John Briggs and fueled by Anita Bryant (Proposition 6)  that involved physical risk, and the real Harvey Milk did make tapes (in 1977) to be played in the event of his assassination. But it would be stretching things to say Milk was killed because he was gay. His death was more like a fluke, part of a macabre workplace crime that also robbed the city of its mayor. It’s evidence of the film’s effectiveness, its power to incite emotion, that Milk’s death is made to feel like the inevitable consequence of his being a visionary. What really comes across from watching the film is the feeling of compatriots and being family that we felt as a community.

11 Responses

  1. What a wonderful review, Matt! I really want to see this film. I’m sure that Sean Penn did a wonderful job.

  2. This is a lovely review of a lovely, moving, and very important film. I enjoyed every minute of it and was so inspired by Milk’s life and Penn’s ability to become the character. The ensemble cast was impressive and superb, and you sum it all up so well here.

  3. I found this movie to be absolutely enthralling, and am more than a little envious of the fact that you were so close to its filming! I thought the acting/character skill portrayed by all the major actors, particularly Penn and Franco, was absolutely stunning! I did not, however, know that this was a book, and now will have to give serious thought to reading it! 😀

  4. Your passion shines through, Matt! It is my hope that this movie gets its due on Oscar night.

  5. Excellent review, Matt. I was quite taken with the movie when I saw it last month. Sean Penn did such a wonderful job. I couldn’t help as I watched to think of the struggle against Prop 8 as I watched this film, and I felt sad all over again that we still have a long ways to go. I’m hopeful though that things will change for the better. 🙂

  6. I saw the preview for this film last time I was at the cinema and am very much looking forward to seeing it. Sounds great too from your review.

  7. fantastic review, i agree with you that the homicide of the City Mayor and Milk was more a workplace violence than a hate crime, hence Milk’s martyrdom wasn’t completely analogous to MLK’s. having said that, both Milk and MLK made and commitment and prepared to die for the very cause and vision of a better society for all human beings regardless of differences… and i think that was the most moving part of the movie. as corny as it may sound, it was the triumph of the human spirit and the legacy of these visionaries that defied time and circumstances.

  8. Ever since I saw the preview, I’ve been waiting for the film. Just have to make it to the movie theater now… Thank you for a great review, Matt!

  9. Thank you for an excellent review. As usual, lots of insight, thoughtful analysis and your own personal response. I have to overcome some difficulties to see this film, but I must try.

  10. I’m so glad that this movie got such a great amount of positive attention. Now that school has started back up and I’ve started a new job – I haven’t had the chance to go to the movies – but I plan on going to support this one while it is still in theatres.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Also, there’s an award for you on my blog! Have a good day, Matt!

  11. Now, I really MUST see this. Sean Penn is one of our best actors, don’t you think?

    I sincerely hope that CA homosexuals regain the right to marry and have the same rights as heterosexual couples. If same-sex marriage is voted down again, I think the gay community should take to the streets and march like MLK followers did way back when. Maybe its time for a huge gay rights movement!

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