Revolution #149, November 30, 2008



Milk is a film about the life of Harvey Milk, a leader of the gay community in San Francisco’s Castro District in the 1970’s, and the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States.  The film is timely and powerful and, while it is much more than an “issue film,” it resonates in what is at times an almost eerie way with the current political assault on gay marriage and the resistance from the people.

Sean Penn brings Milk alive—funny, likeable, charismatic, brave, dedicated to a just cause. The film’s director Gus Van Sant is himself gay and makes films that usually portray outsiders of one kind or another.

The movie’s opening credits show newsreel footage of police raiding gay bars, arresting and hauling people off in paddy wagons as they try to cover their faces so their “crime” of sexual orientation won’t be revealed. Through the life of Milk, it paints a picture of the fierce and complicated battle waged to change all that—one that is very far from over.

You see Milk opening what would become his famous camera store on Castro Street in 1972. The shop owner across the street comes over and says if Milk opens the store, he will call in the police. Milk asks under what law, and the guy says, “There’s god’s law and there’s man’s law and the San Francisco police enforce both.” Milk’s response is to immediately open the store.

When a gay person is murdered in the Castro, or vicious police raids on gay bars (where in one case the police covered their badges and put 14 people in the hospital), Milk grabbed his bullhorn and led militant marches through San Francisco.

The film depicts the vicious political campaigns waged against gay rights by people like country music singer and spokesperson for Florida orange juice, Anita Bryant, and the fight to defeat this.  Documentary footage shows Anita Bryant saying that “evil forces are round about us that want to tear down the family unit that holds America together.” (sound familiar?) Reactionary State Senator John Briggs launched an initiative to fire all gay teachers denouncing “perverts and pedophiles who recruit our children.” In response Milk started prefacing his speeches with his trademark line, “I’m Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you.”

The film shows Milk’s determination to seek change within the system by repeatedly running for electoral office and finally winning in 1978.  In 1979, less than one year after his election, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were gunned down by San Francisco Supervisor and ex-police officer Dan White (played by Josh Brolin), a representative of traditional values, who ran for office on a campaign denouncing “splinter groups of radicals, social deviants and incorrigibles.”

The film ends with thousands marching in a candlelight memorial after Milk’s assassination. White was only convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to only seven years in jail for the double political assassinations. In the wake of the verdict and light sentence, which was seen by many as a vindication of White, San Francisco erupted in the “White Night” riots. Windows were smashed in City Hall, a dozen police cars were burned.

The movie captures vividly the life of Harvey Milk, with all its contradictions, and captures as well the spirit of the gay movement of the time—the early to late 1970s—focused in the San Francisco Castro District during the period that it emerged as a national gay cultural, political and social center.  

Milk opens on Nov. 26 in select cities and December 5 nationwide.

Suggestion to readers: Bring your friends, and a stack of the current issue of Revolution, along with Revolution #148 (with the cover story, “Gay Marriage: A Basic Right! A Just Demand!”) to showings of Milk in your area. Get Revolution out among people seeing the movie.


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