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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.


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One rainy morning I was thrilled to walk on Castro Street that was undergoing a 1970s makeover. The film crew, which rents out the space that was once Tower Records next to Cafe Flore as a staging area, is redecorating the strip between Market Street and 19th Street for a Hollywood film about the life and death of San Francisco Supervisor, Harvey Milk (1930-1978), a gay activist. He was the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the United States. As the self-described “Mayor of Castro Street” he was active during a time of substantial change in San Francisco politics and increasing visibility of gay and lesbian people in American society. He was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by then recently-resigned supervisor Dan White, whose relatively minor conviction for the crime led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco.

The film, which stars Sean Penn as Milk, Josh Brolin as White, Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, and James Franco as Smith, is currently filming in San Francisco. The crew has has changed storefronts, stapled up fliers indicative of the era, including a post-bill of a music party dated 1968, and even redecorated the garbage bins, to approximate the historical setting. Castro residents, while admiring these almost true-to-life makeover, take a bit of time to acclimatize to the fake storefronts, like that of a florist which is really Wells Fargo Bank, and the beautiful vintage blue awning that houses Thai House Express. For old-timers, the filming and the restoration of the neighborhood to the 70s milieu inevitably provoke memories and emotions in the Castro. People like some of my friends who lived through the era are revisiting the turbulence and exhilaration of Milk’s rise to prominence as one of the first openly gay people in the country to hold a major elective office, as well as the horrifying dark days that followed his assassination.

As I quietly watch the extras, all dressed in the 70s costumes like cloth coat and crocheted hat, trudging up and down the block, I have mixed feelings, about how much the gay community has come a long way and it seems many of us have taken things for granted. For those of us who didn’t live through that period of history, I’m grateful the film has at least re-introduced the atmosphere that would serve a history lesson. That they decide to film in actual locations has more than a historical meaning, it evokes that spirit of being gay, and being proud. The fictitious storefronts, which delicately replicate period details as the psychedelic Aquarius Records storefront, the repainted Castro movie theater marquee and the flickering neon window sign for liquor shops will stay until filming wraps up in mid March.