Few reviewers will miss the opportunity to point out—the parallels are hard to ignore—that Harvey Milk was the Barack Obama of his day, a minority candidate who represented change, opposed the party machine, and preached a gospel of hope. Milk's stump speech was dubbed the Hope Speech, and the last line of his recorded will, which also closes the film, was: "You gotta give them hope." Milk was also, in essence, a community organizer, a grassroots populist with a gift for reaching out across San Francisco's patchwork of minorities. After Prop 8 passed, some gay activists were all too eager to blame blacks and Latinos (two groups in which majorities voted "yes") and to define the problem along racial lines. Milk's impassioned rhetoric of inclusivity—he called his hodgepodge coalition, which ran from Asians to seniors to blacks to labor unions, "the us-es"—is helpful to keep in mind in light of the recent finger-pointing.
Viewed in a post-Prop 8 environment, Milk might well suggest strategies for the culture wars to come. But had it appeared earlier, could this particular battle have been won? While it's naive to presume that movies can swing electorates—just ask Michael Moore—those what-if questions are hard to dismiss, not least for the filmmakers. Interviewed by the San Francisco Bay Guardian recently, Van Sant conceded, "Harvey would have opened it in October."
That the question of timing and impact is being raised says something about where Milk falls on the spectrum of gay cinema. In one sense, it belongs with the AIDS melodrama Philadelphia and the closet weepie Brokeback Mountain in the relatively small group of serious gay-themed Hollywood movies that, partly because of their scarcity, still exist as consciousness-raising vehicles or as markers of social progress. (Milk is all but guaranteed a good night at the Oscars, given that many members of the Academy are likely to see a vote for Milk as a vote against Prop 8, not to mention a way to make up for giving the Oscar that was thought a lock for Brokeback Mountain, also a Focus release, to the odious Crash.)
But Gus Van Sant fits more comfortably into a different category of gay cinema. This is a far richer strain of queerness, one that has never had much trouble saying its name and that ranges from Cocteau and Pasolini and Fassbinder to John Waters and Pedro Almodovar and Todd Haynes—gay filmmakers with a discernible queer sensibility but little concern for identity politics and representational burdens. Van Sant has never made a secret of his gayness—few filmmakers are as candid about the complexities of desire or as openly enamored of male beauty—but he is also no one's idea of an activist.
Milk is itself a kind of marriage, a surprisingly fluid and intuitive merging of these two traditions of gay cinema. Van Sant brings to this sincere, intelligent (and by his standards, quite conventional) movie an offhand sensitivity and a welcome lack of inhibitions. (It's worth noting that both Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain were made by straight directors.) Milk's most indelible scenes are its most intimate, the quiet, privileged moments between Penn's Harvey and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) that Van Sant films with an elated tenderness. In an early scene, as the two kiss outside the store they've just opened on the Castro, his camera, on a palpable high, pulls back and practically levitates.
It's these small lingering touches that set Milk apart from your average message movie. Harvey might have wanted the film out earlier, but the opera queen in him, the natural-born showman who maintained that "politics is theater," would have appreciated the drama that now surrounds it. Just as his assassination, which he repeatedly foretold, has meant that Milk remains frozen in time as a martyr, the Proposition 8 result has, for now at least, redefined Milk as a cause.