Revolution #150, December 14, 2008
Milk: Heart Rending and Joyful
Milk is a must-see film about the life of Harvey Milk, a leader of the gay community in San Francisco’s Castro District in the 1970s, and the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. In 1979, less than one year after his election, Milk, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, were gunned down by former SF Supervisor and ex-police officer Dan White, a representative of traditional values, who ran for office on a campaign denouncing “splinter groups of radicals, social deviants and incorrigibles.”
The film is both heart rending and joyful. It depicts bravery, commitment and loving relationships forged in a fight for justice. It’s also 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 with the passage of Proposition 8 in California (and similar measures in other states) and the powerful resistance from the people, particularly the gay and lesbian community.
Sean Penn brings Milk alive—funny, charismatic, brave and dedicated to a just cause. The film’s director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Elephant) is himself gay and makes films that usually portray outsiders of one kind or another.
A Glimpse into a Period of Upheaval
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.
The film starts with a sense of what it meant to be gay in a time when most gay people were forced to remain in the closet. 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—which at the time caused people to lose their jobs and face social ostracism. Through the life of Milk, who left a closeted life as an advertising executive in NYC to start a new life in San Francisco, 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.” His partner is taken aback, but Milk immediately opens the store—the sign in the window says, “Yes—we are open.”
You also see the ways in which there was a spirit of rebellion in this country as a whole. When a gay person is murdered in the Castro, or vicious police raid a gay bar (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. And the spirit of the times comes out when the film shows a march of thousands chanting “civil rights or civil war.”
The film exposes the harm of the vicious political campaigns waged against gay rights by people like singer and spokesperson for Florida orange juice, Anita Bryant. And it brings out the underlying biblically-based social relations they were reinforcing.
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.” Reactionary State Senator John Briggs launched an initiative to fire all gay teachers denouncing “perverts and pedophiles who recruit our children.” (Proposition 6) In response Milk started prefacing his speeches with his trademark line, “I’m Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you.”
You see and feel the harm this repressive and patriarchal system has done to generations of gay youth. And you see the heart and bravery Milk was demanding of himself and others. Milk receives phone calls from across the country from youth asking for help and on the verge of suicide, who were being subjected to violence, cruel social isolation, and psychological “reprogramming.” He counsels one youth to leave home, go to the nearest city and find the gay community. When Dan White speaks enviously of Milk for having an “issue,” Milk passionately responds that gay rights is “more than an issue, it’s our lives we’re fighting for.” He explains that three out of four of his partners have attempted suicide because he forced them to live in the closet. In order to fight Briggs’ proposition, Milk calls on gays and lesbians to “come out, come out, wherever you are.” And before his death, Milk said that “If a bullet strikes me, may it open every closet door.” It’s an outrage that still in this society gay youth commit suicide at a reported rate of one every six hours because of the dehumanization and unrelenting harassment they face.
Working Within the System
While Milk fought for a range of progressive causes, not just gay rights, it was in the framework of making changes within the system, not getting rid of it. He was a leader who represented—and argued for—the possibility of hope in the system, seeking to uphold the U.S. Constitution and “America’s promise” as the framework for social change.
This is a dangerous illusion and the movie itself brings out some of the contradictions inherent in such an approach. During a demonstration in the Castro, the police tell Milk that either he can prevent a riot or they will, by cracking heads. He intervenes and leads a peaceful march to City Hall. Or after an initiative sponsored by Anita Bryant in Florida overturns gay rights, people take to the streets in the Castro. Milk dispatches one of his activists, Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), to lead the demonstration while Milk maneuvered to intervene and come out the mediator between the crowd and the police. He is also portrayed in the movie as saying that if the Briggs initiative (Proposition 6) passes, we need to “riot.” He said that as an elected official, he couldn’t call for this, but asked Cleve to lead it.
The fact is that in confronting oppression that is as deeply rooted in the fabric of society as the discrimination against gay men and lesbians—as Harvey Milk and the movement of the 1970s did—people are consistently thrust against the capitalist state and in particular its use of armed force. And people are continually confronted by the need to go up against all that or to lower their sights and dreams and instead seek some way of accommodation within a system of oppression.
Within a framework of working within the system, Milk fought boldly against conservative and deadly strategies for the gay rights movement that argued for pitching things to the “lowest common denominator” and doing everything possible not to “offend.” For example, some forces in the movement argued that they should campaign against the Briggs initiative by talking only about “human rights” and not about gay people at all. Milk refused to take this road, calling it a “coward’s response” and argued instead that gay people should have a mass “coming out”—that if people knew that friends and relatives were gay they would vote against the Briggs initiative.
Milk knew that he was up against powerful forces. But he went up in the face of reactionary attacks with humor and bravery. The Mayor of Castro Street, Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk, says that he always predicted that “it would end with bullets in his brain.” When a death threat arrived in the mail, Milk’s partner suggests they call the police. Milk answers that the police probably sent it and posts the note, containing pictures of Milk being dismembered with a chain saw, on his kitchen water heater. When Milk is told of a threat that he will be shot as he steps to the microphone at a gay liberation day rally, Milk literally rushes to the podium and throws his hands in the air.
Milk was assassinated by Dan White (played by Josh Brolin), who had campaigned against “social deviancy,” and White put in his campaign for supervisor that he was “seeking to unleash a fury that will eliminate the blight on our fair city.” Brolin brilliantly captures the martyr complex of the straight white male under attack, when just the opposite is true.
After Milk and Moscone’s assassination, the movie ends with a moving scene of tens of thousands of people marching through San Francisco in a candlelight march. And describes in a caption at the end of the film what happened next. White was only convicted of manslaughter (rather than murder) and sentenced to only seven years in jail for the double murder. Viewing the sentencing as a vindication of White, the All-American boy and ex-police officer, for the murder of Milk, San Francisco erupted in the “White Night” riots. Windows were smashed in city hall; a dozen police cars were burned. Later that night in retaliation, the police staged a brutal raid on the Elephant Bar in the Castro, shouting “Banzai,” smashing TV cameras that tried to record the incident and bring down their clubs on anything that moved.
Relevance for Today
Milk is being released as a battle is again raging in society around gay rights and this film makes you want to fight! Proposition 8 in California has banned gay marriage, once again writing discrimination into law. The terms of things are different now, even as the core opposition of this system to homosexuality remains and is in some ways more virulent. The Anita Bryants, John Briggses and Dan Whites have morphed into a Christian fascist movement with even more political strength and closer ties to the center of power in U.S. society.
In response, powerful demonstrations have taken to the streets. These need to continue and grow, learning from Harvey Milk’s uncompromising stand.
Milk opened on November 26 in selected cities and opens December 5 nationwide. See this film and bring friends.
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