Harvey Milk was gunned down on Nov. 27, 1978, three weeks after his biggest political victory. The San Francisco city supervisor, the first openly gay man elected to a major public position in this country, had been in office less than a year when he spearheaded a statewide campaign to defeat Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that called for the mandatory firing of gay teachers in California. Milk, Gus Van Sant's film about this unlikely politician's brief but brilliant career, marks the 30th anniversary of its subject's death. But it also arrives three weeks after the biggest political setback the American gay rights movement has suffered in years: the passage of Proposition 8, which reversed the California Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
In ways its makers could not have expected, Milk is very much a movie of its moment—it now seems like more than just a movie. It has sparked copious pre-release commentary—not many films occasion three New York Times articles and a Maureen Dowd column before they open. Amid all the ruminations about Milk's eerie relevance and the talk of life mirroring art mirroring life, two questions have come up repeatedly: How does Proposition 8 change the meaning—the symbolic significance as well as the real-world function—of Milk? And if the film had found an audience early enough, could it have made a difference?
The first question is easier to answer. The passage of Prop 8 transformed Van Sant's film from a delicate, serious-minded period biopic into something altogether more urgent and emotional: a threnody, a catharsis, a call to action. Its hero, played by an unusually warm and giddy Sean Penn, is not simply a trailblazer who threw open closet doors; he's a prophet whose words still matter and, what's more, have gone sadly unheeded. There are moments in the film that now seem to traverse time and space, as if telepathically addressing the struggles of the present day. As the Prop 6 results start to roll in, Harvey tells his followers: "If this thing passes, fight the hell back."
To judge from the numerous rallies that have sprung up across the country since Prop 8 passed, many gays and lesbians are doing just that. Gay rights advocates have said they hope to capitalize on Milk's fortuitous topicality. The film's screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and veteran activist Cleve Jones (a cohort of Milk's, played by Emile Hirsch in the film) published a manifesto for equality in the San Francisco Chronicle last week and launched a nationwide campaign of mass protests and civil disobedience. It may be a sign of the gay leadership vacuum that a newly radicalized generation could conceivably find its figurehead in the movie-hero version of a long-dead crusader. But it also speaks to the head-on passion and clear-eyed acumen of Milk's fighting style.
Van Sant's movie serves a galvanizing purpose, and not just because it is now shrouded in wistful disappointment, a sense of look-how-far-we-haven't-come. The most useful and impressive thing about Milk is that it manages simultaneously to paint its subject as a martyr and to restore him to a human scale. An opera and an exhibition about the man have shared the title Saint Harvey. Van Sant and Black borrow from the more reflective approaches of the two defining works on Milk, Randy Shilts' 1982 biography The Mayor of Castro Street and Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Looking past the beatified Milk of myth, they celebrate the shrewd strategist, the publicity whore, the dogged outsider who scraped his way into city hall and never forgot he was there to get things done.
Because Milk was a pragmatist, Milk has practical lessons to impart. He realized that his public example could mean a great deal to the private experiences of countless individuals, and as such coveted attention and visibility. He insisted that the fight against homophobia begins with the act of coming out ("If they know us, they don't vote against us"), and he believed that instead of relying on pacts with straight allies in high places, gays and lesbians should serve as their own advocates. The recent anti-Prop 8 movement seemed to embrace the opposite tactic. It was a closeted campaign, devoid of a public face, largely dependent on straight spokespeople, and run with a wary defensiveness that would have driven Milk mad.