Thirty years on, Milk's life still as relevant today

Reviewed by Dani Barley
Runtime: 128 minutes
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring Sean Penn, James Franco and Josh Brolin

“And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.” While these words easily lend themselves to the assumption that it was one of the many lines used by Barack Obama during his marathon 2007-08 presidential election campaign, they were in fact spoken 30 years earlier by the first openly gay man elected to a significant US public office, Harvey Milk. The “Hope Speech”, as it is often referred to, is not the only timely parallel between the fight for gay rights in California in the years leading up to 1978 and the California of 2008, when Proposition 8 managed to pass, banning homosexual couples from marrying.

Starring Sean Penn in a role that has just won him an Academy Award for best actor, director Gus Van Sant’s biopic of San Francisco city supervisor (councillor) Harvey Milk is a powerful reminder of how far the gay rights movement has come and, as illustrated by the ability of Prop 8 to pass in California, how far it has left to go. With a supporting cast that features James Franco as Milk’s long-time lover Scott Smith, Emile Hersch as Cleve Jones (who later became known as the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt) and Josh Brolin as Dan White, the conflicted city supervisor who assassinates Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

The casting is nothing short of superb. Penn is almost unrecognisable as himself in the role, disappearing in to it to such a degree that, at times, you really feel as if you’re watching old newsreels of Milk from the 1970s. Brolin provides sympathy and depth to a man undeserving of it, especially in light of his infamous claim that one of the mitigating factors in his crime was a binge of unhealthy junk food the night before — the “Twinkie Defense”.

The movie chronicles the last eight years of Milk’s life, from his 40th birthday when he reaches a personal epiphany (“Forty years old and I haven’t done a thing that I’m proud of”). This moment makes him spurn his heavily closeted life in New York City to migrate across the US with Smith in tow, to join the ever-growing gay enclave in the Castro District of San Francisco. It was here that Milk found himself and grew quickly into his role as advocate and activist.

Citing the need for gay representation on the city Board of Supervisors, he ran his first campaign for the seat in 1973 and came 10th out of 32 candidates. (Had the election been held on a district basis instead of a city-wide one, he would have won his seat.) Undeterred by the loss, Milk continued to lobby and campaign. When approached by the Teamsters union to join in a local boycott of Coors beer products, he organised the gay bars to ditch the beer. Along with a coalition of Asian grocers, the boycott worked and Coors agreed to a union contract. In return, the Teamsters agreed to hire more gay drivers.

Milk ran for district supervisor again in 1975 and then for the California State Assembly in 1976. He lost both times, but only just. After a vote to reorganise supervisor elections on a district basis in 1976, Milk ran again in 1977 and was the first openly gay, non-incumbent to win election to a public office. Milk biographer Randy Shilts observed: “some would claim Harvey was a socialist or various other sorts of ideologues, but, in reality, Harvey’s political philosophy was never more complicated than the issue of dogshit; government should solve people’s basic problems”.

Milk was sworn in on January 8, 1978 and quickly sought to pass a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The New York Times called it the “most stringent and encompassing in the nation”. It passed easily, with only White — upset over what he viewed as Milk backing down from a promise to help relocate a mental health facility outside of White’s district — voting against.

The bill was an important victory as legislated bigotry was gaining steam throughout the US. In 1977, Christian fundamentalist singer Anita Bryant headed a campaign to overturn a recently passed civil rights ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in Dade County, Florida. Bryant’s group, Save Our Children, argued the ordinance infringed on their right to teach their children Biblical morality and gained enough signatures for a special election. 70% voted to overturn the law and provided the first major legislative setback for the gay rights movement since its inception following the 1969 Stonewall riots.

The defeat in Dade County led to similar votes in cities in Minnesota, Kansas and Oregon throughout 1977-78, all of which passed. The fight was brought directly to California in 1978 by state legislator John Briggs who sought to allow the firing of any teacher or school employee who was found to be “advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting” homosexual activity. The wording of the initiative, known as Proposition 6 or the “Briggs initiative”, was so convoluted that even those who merely supported gay rights could be fired.

Prop 6 lost by more than a million votes. The arguments in favour of it were almost verbatim the arguments made in California 30 years later during the Prop 8 campaign. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote: “It’s impossible to see ‘Milk’s’ anti-Prop 6 demonstrations, to read signs saying things like ‘Gay rights now’ and ‘Save our human rights,’ without thinking of the very current battle over Proposition 8 and its ban of gay marriage.”

Some gay rights campaigners have wondered aloud if the outcome in 2008 would have been different had Milk been released in October instead of November. Penn, during his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar, reflected: “I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

Milk’s murder quickly changes the tone of the film, but as you watch the prologue and see what those around him went on to do for the gay rights movement and in the campaign for AIDS awareness, you don’t feel quite as hopeless because he clearly inspired many others to continue to fight. Shortly before his death, Milk recorded a message in case one of the growing number of death threats he’d been receiving became reality. In it, he remarked, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door”. Milk brings his story to a new generation at a time when it probably needs it the most.