MILK (Gus Van Sant)
East Bay punk rock was the ostensible rational for the move from my Midwestern roots to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1992. But an underlying factor—which I was too terrified to acknowledge overtly at the time—was that I couldn’t wait to be in a place where I would feel comfortable with my sexual preference: a natural inclination that for my very survival, I had hide from everyone I had ever met beside the few people I with which I shared intimacies.
Upon my arrival to San Francisco’s Castro District, I was pretty disappointed.
I found the gay community to be, for the most part, homogenous (no pun intended) and off-putting. Izod shirts and Chanel shades abounded, and beside a few exceptional dives, unscrupulous punk rockers were the same scum in the Castro that they were anywhere else. Over the years, little of this has changed.
Harvey Milk migrated to San Francisco far before I did, and he stumbled upon the same Castro that defeated my expectations. The difference for Milk was that he didn’t have the expectations I did. He, in a sense, created them for me.
Not that I blame Milk—or anyone else for that matter—for my lack of interest in the established gay ‘scene’ of the day; in fact, I’m sure he would be rather disgusted to see the gentrified tourist trap his former ‘hood has become. Not to mention, the contributions gay culture has ended up making to hasten gentrification and its ostentatious flaunting of wealth fly in the very face of everything Milk stood for.
Seeing Gus Van Zant’s biopic “Milk” at San Francisco’s Castro Theater nails these points home, but also conjures tear-inducing nostalgia. Much of the film was shot on this very street; and the historic theater is barely more than a block from the location of the camera store that Milk ran in the 70’s—which doubled as a gay drop-in center and Milk’s campaign headquarters.
The audience tonight is clearly feeling the spirit, hooting and hollering, cheering and applauding from the moment the Castro’s signature Wurlitzer organ rises up from below the screen to usher in the film until the very last credits roll and the lights come up. No one is in any hurry to depart, and fact, I think many simply didn’t want to leave at all, knowing that the Castro Street of 2008 waits just outside the door.
Playing the legend himself, Sean Penn affects Milk’s vibrant personality and sweet vulnerability with ease, distinctly similar to his role as Sam Bicke, the also reality-based disaffected furniture salesman in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”
The big surprise in “Milk” is Emile Hirsh, known for punky masculine roles in Alpha Dog and Lords of Dogtown, he dons a poof of curly hair and gaudy, chunky glasses. His role as Milk’s platonic confidante Cleve Jones is a definite departure for Hirsh, and a welcome change of pace from the young actor.
Beyond the tragedy of Harvey’s death, the open end in this story lies in one fundamental question. As the sweeping shots of San Francisco’s streets filled with marchers mourning the fearless motivator glow from the screen, tearful movie-goers all have to be wondering the same thing: What if he had lived?
What more could he have accomplished? And how much more of an eclectically diverse and especially economically dispersed community would Milk’s Castro be today?
Would we have allowed the City to shut down the annual impromptu Castro Halloween party? Until its cancellation three years ago due to a few random criminal incidents several blocks away, the Halloween party was the most outstanding vestige left of Milk’s leadership manner: in which he recruited people into the street to celebrate their diverse lives, and to demand equity in doing so.
Certainly if Milk was alive today, the advocacy for California’s proposition 8, repealing the right of gays and lesbians to wed, would have been met with much more than the button-and-sticker campaign that it saw. Polls after the election showed an immediate shift—that enough voters regretted the vote that they had cast. It’s undeniable that if we had Harvey Milk out there ‘recruiting’, we would never have lost the equality we fought so long and hard to have for such a short time.
The same night that Jef experienced “Milk” in the historic Castro Theater, I was engaged with this film here in Denver, probably laughing at crying at the same time he was. But my experience was not quite the same, having grown up in the Bay Area and having a few more rings around my time trunk. I do remember hearing about this trailblazer for gay rights in the ‘70s, and like it was yesterday, the day Harvey Milk was struck down. I was in history class, and the principal came on the intercom to announce that we would be hearing the press conference being held by Dianne Feinstein. Her words, which I would later see air many times on T.V., came through as a shock to me. That Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been shot and killed by Dan White. I didn’t get it. Who does that? Was it because he was gay? Who was this nutbag White?
I remember Milk’s big smile and that way he had that inspired and invigorated the gay community. And now he was gone. I remember walking out of class immediately after the announcement, since the principle had closed school for the day, feeling like I was in a haze. The others seemed indifferent to the incident, which made the sting even worse. They were just stoked to get out of class early.
I went home and tried to talk to my parents about it, and that’s when I found out how they didn’t support gay rights, because of the bible, further increasing the gap between me and organized religion. It would be the first of many arguments I had with them and others on the topic, especially as I learned that White got off with a slap on the wrist—because of a Twinkie defense. It was the first time I learned that this statue of justice was not quite balanced and literally had a blindfold that kept the truth from being realized. And although I wasn’t able to be a part of those marches that followed (oddly enough, my parents wouldn’t give me a ride into the City), it was inspiring to see that a few miles away, that tenacity fired up by Milk was still alive and sending a clear message in the streets.
Seeing “Milk” that night, I was taken right back to that place in time, and Sean Penn was brilliant in bringing to life the man that was bigger than life. The anger I felt watching Anita Bryant spread her hate came rushing back as vintage footage was integrated into the film (and also made me laugh a bit as I remembered my boycott of orange juice, which further confused my mom at the time…heehee).
As years passed, I never saw another advocate like Milk. Yes, there have been strides for gay rights made in the last 30 years, but the passing of Proposition 8 was evidence that there’s still a long way to go: to overcoming the hypocrisy of using religion as a tool for suppression, and for today’s gay activists meeting the high standards left my Milk’s legacy (see a great piece on this topic, “Why Gay Marriage Was Defeated in California,” by John Cloud of Time Magazine).
“Milk” is not just a must-see for those interested in gay rights; it’s for everyone interested in human rights. It pays tribute to a man who, like others before us, paved a way for a more just world that supports our country’s Declaration of Independence, which the Mayor of Castro often used in his speeches, that we are all created equal. “You can NEVER erase those words! That is what America is!”