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.
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.