Thanks to a couple of distribution snags, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the biopic about former San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, finally made it to Fayetteville this weekend. The film, based on a screenplay by Duncan Lance Black, depicts the brief political career of Harvey Milk, often described as the first openly gay elected official, before he was murdered by fellow supervisor, Dan White, who also killed Mayor George Moscone.  Because the film came out several weeks ago, in the midst of the 2008 presidential election and, more crucially, California’s Proposition 8 vote, the reception of the film has been shaped by the continued culture wars over the definition of marriage.  Given Milk’s own involvement in fighting the 1978 Proposition 6 (“the Briggs Amenment,” discussed here by Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk), which would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in public schools, it’s impossible not to see the resonances between the two eras, and I think the reception of the film invites us to use it as a political tool in supporting marriage rights.

That being said, Van Sant’s film left me feeling somewhat neutral, a reaction I often have to Oscar-bait films. Van Sant, I believe, brings a lot to the story, crafting it around a tape recorded by Milk a few months before he was assassinated.  In her excellent review of the film, Karina described the narration as an “unnecessary and somewhat illogical framing device,” and I think she may be right to suggest how the narration and other familiar tropes of the biopic make the film appear overly conventional when I hoped that it would push boundaries of genre, image, and film style.  The secondary framing, a chance encounter between Milk and a younger, hippieish Scott Smith (James Franco), establishes a similarly familiar trope of the hero who overcomes apathy or indifference in order to make a difference.

These intimate moments are contratsed with Milk’s gradual evolution into a kind of neighborhood leader (“The Mayor of Castro Street,” as he was often described), his camera shop becoming a center of activism in the gay community.  The film depicts Milk taking his familiar position on top of a box labeled “soap” to lead the crowds of gays and lesbians frustrated at arrests and other police harrassment building alongside Milk’s several campaigns for city office.  While many of these scenes were incredibly powerful, especially the playful repetition of Milk’s signature greeting (“I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you”), here is one moment where I think the conventions of a biopic, which force us to focus on a single aspect of Milk’s story, obscure some of the other valuable work Milk did in his political career, including his work on behalf of unions, senior citizens, and other groups.  This activity, carefully documented in Epstein’s film, disappears, for the most part, leaving us with an incomplete portrait.

To be fair, Milk had a number of memorable moments for me: I loved the intercutting between the contemporary performances and the documentary and stock footage of 1970s San Francisco, in particular the Castro district where Milk lived and worked.  Milk understood the power of images.  His campaign stunt of stepping in dog crap in order to underscore the need for pooper scooper laws is but one small example, and the pastiche of images helps to convey that.  And the shots of Anita Bryant campaigning for Prop 6 capture the prejudice that many gays and lesbians faced better than any re-creation of her character.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about Milk today is that I was, like Andrew O’Hehir, a little disappointed by the film’s lack of complexity and, in places, its tendency to sanitize the image of 1970s San Francisco.  To some extent, these choices may be motivated by a desire to reach out and to make the bohemian lives of Milk and his friends safe for the movie theaters and living rooms of the widest possible audience, an impulse that generally seems productive to me, even if it results in films that feel watered down.  I realize the pedagogical value of such films (A.O. Scott favorably describes Milk as a “fascinating, multi-layered history lesson”), especially when they can reintroduce forgotten figures into a wider cultural memory, but at the same time, I would have loved something more complex and detailed, a film that took the full measure of Milk’s significant political career.


  1. Matt Thomas Said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    What I liked most about “Milk” was its depiction of pre-internet grassroots politics. I found all of Milk and company’s strategizing fascinating and eminently watchable. Has any other non-documentary film done such a good job of pulling back the curtain on a political campaign?

    Conversely, I felt like the film faltered every time Milk gave a “big speech.” After a year spent listening to Obama give one great speech after another using similar buzz words (e.g., “hope”), Penn’s speechifying seemed flat and contrived to me. And the scene in which Milk leads a throng of protesters to city hall and quells their anger by giving an impromptu speech via megaphone? Regardless of whether it was based on actual events, it seemed like a pale imitation of a similar scene in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”

    I would have loved to see less speaking and public stuff and more development of the relationship between Milk and Dan White. The whole movie, in fact, could have been 10-15 minutes longer in my view.

  2. Joanna Said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    Those of us who grew up in the Bay Area and came of age when Milk and Moscone were assassinated have a context in which to understand the complexity you are aksing form, but I think that unless Van Sant had wanted to make a film like Syriana or Babel or another film that was capable of conveying the absolute paranoia of those times, the Jonestwon muders and the whole Zodiac/Zebra Killer/SLA Patty Hearst/context, (which for the majority of the US public has been sanitized out of existence by the hegemony of REatgan’s ascension to power) I think the choice to focus on the story of coming out the necessary political act for a generation of people would have been lost. Fore me the film was an uncanny reconnection with memories of the events.
    I did make sure to watch the documentary again before I saw Milk because I didn’t want the movie to usurp all of my memories (it was a long time ago!) but the overall feel and tome of it felt right on to me. It’s a very disputed set of memories.

  3. Joanna Said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Sorry about all the typos, but when I try to post comments here, someitmes the comment box is obscured by the right sidebar!

  4. Chuck Said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    Matt, I think you’re right about the backroom stuff. The film made grassroots politics seem vital, and the the activists involved both energetic and committed. Still trying to wrap my head around how that fits into my appreciation of the film, but it’s a good point.

    Joanna, you’re also right about the importance of the politics of coming out to the overall story, but there were so many references to coalition politics in Milk’s speeches that I would have liked a little more visual depiction of that. The shot of the labor leader going into Harvey’s shop was one good example, but I think that could have been exploited further.

    No matter what, the film has been successful in provoking conversation abut an important but lesser known political figure, which is certainly a good thing.

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    I’m not sure what to do about the sidebar issue. What browser are you using? Maybe I can do some tweaking….

  6. Joanna Said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    I use Firefox.

  7. Chuck Said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    Strange. Must be something else, then. I use Firefox, too.

  8. G Said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    I thought a major problem with Milk is that it doesn’t examine how Harvey Milk addressed a fundamental question: if so much of the world hates your community, the gay community, how do you become a politician campaigning for all people’s rights, rather than just protecting the gay community and keeping it isolated? Also, if so many of Milk’s partners killed themselves, how is he able to approach Dan Whyte with humor instead of deeply resenting him? Where does that love and forgiveness come from? I would have liked a more philosophical treatment of the problem of community.

    The film seems to equate ‘gay rights’ with ‘rights for all people’, and by pointing out, without really describing how, Milk works for union workers and senior citizens etc also, the film equates gay rights with the rights of any oppressed group, which, in spite of the film’s attempt to make Milk a martyr, actually does something to trivialize the gay plight. By the logic of the film, one is either the majority or is every marginalized group which is automatically in favor of every other marginalized group.

    The film got past these problems briefly in one of my favorite scenes: when Ann, “the lesbian,” comes to work for Milk, and the men are patronizing with her. But why is Milk more accepting of her than the rest? What makes him so enlightened? I think the film is so anxious to turn him into a martyr that it trivializes his character. “Of course Milk wants to support everyone — it’s because he’s great! He died for us! God!”

    The artificial frame (I’m glad so many of you have pointed this out) of Milk recording his experiences before his death makes him even more saintly, gives him a certain clairvoyance even though he does not guess the moment of his death. And then earlier in the film, when Milk is in NY and meets Scotty, he says he won’t live past fifty, and Van Sant very unsubtly shifts back to that scene when Milk is dying. He knows all things and is kind to all people, while still having the requisite quirks, like a forgivable pension for theater in politics and opera, so Van Sant can pretend the character isn’t being made to be perfect when in fact he is. I thought Brolin’s subtle and enigmatic portrayal of Whyte was the highlight of the movie. It’s not bad, but I think Milk the film makes some serious mistakes.

  9. G Said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    I also use Firefox and have not had a problem with scrolling around or seeing the whole screen.

  10. Chuck Said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

    Interesting observations, G. I think the film risks turning Milk into a saint, and the redemptive narrative, suggested by Milk’s tape, which allows him to speak from beyond the grave, risks being a little too reductive.

    One of the questions this film raises for me–and it’s reflected in the comments–is how the reception of this film functions, what role it serves in the various audiences who might encounter it. I tried to address that question via my own reflections about my ambivalence toward Oscar-bait films.

    The other question–about the tension between safety and insularity vs. expanded rights for all–is also integral, and that’s why I would have liked further exploration of Milk’s other political work, especially his support of labor unions and his involvement in a variety of coalition politics.

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