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Take Action with Milk
California's recent vote for the Proposition 8 measure banning gay marriage in California looms heavily over Milk. How could it not?
At the screening I attended, I was crying about 45 minutes in—and by the end of the movie, there were lots of sniffles—as Milk and his comrades fought for better politics, politics that protected people gave a voice to the gay community. Watching the film, there's a strange dichotomy for the viewer: on the screen, there is a testament to Milk's empowering gay politics, and yet Proposition 8 lingers as proof that in the span of 30 years, despite Milk's fight, the gay community is still denied civil rights. If Proposition 8 had been defeated, the film would've played as triumphant.
A fascinating New York Times article, "Activists Seek to Tie Film About Harvey Milk to a Campaign for Gay Rights," outlines several activist organizations linking Milk's release (and the man's legacy) to their Proposition 8 fight. It also discusses how Focus Features, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and activist Cleve Jones are all stepping delicately into the gulf of promoting their film and promoting civil rights for gays.
Black and Jones published a "manifesto," "Now is the time for equality for all Americans," in The San Francisco Chronicle.
They linked to the site Seven Weeks for Equality, which is calling for a national campaign of mass protests and non-violent civil disobedience.
Join the Impact was described in the Times piece as a "clearing house for gay rights information."
No Milk for Cinemark! is a proposed boycott of Milk screenings at this theater chain, as the owner had donated $9999 to the Yes on 8 campaign. This campaign has proved to be controversial. You decide.
Lastly, maybe it's small, but here's a link to Milk's Facebook page. It's a good place to start.
In nearly every roundtable interview or press conference for a movie, there's always the one guy who earnestly asks, "How will this movie play at the box office?" At the recent Milk press conference, the guy who always asks this question actually cited the clichéd Everytown, asking, "How will this play in Peoria?" When faced with this question about Main Street America, actors and directors will usually mumble something about how the film is great and people should go see it. While director Gus Van Sant cited the film's positivity and uplifting qualities, actor Josh Brolin had a more blunt reply: "The one gay guy in Peoria can't wait for the movie."
Brolin is right, of course, but he leaves out the fact that Milk is a film for everybody. It's a beautifully made work about politician Harvey Milk (a never-better Sean Penn, who embodies this charismatic man) that tells the story of how a closeted conservative man in New York blossomed into full political power and fervor as an out politician in San Francisco, busting down doors and demanding equal rights. It's also a proudly gay movie, joyfully and passionately celebrating gay culture—in this case, San Francisco's Castro district in the 1970s, the type of place people gravitated to in order to come out and live a better life.
While a biopic in scope, young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black takes on a man's life and condenses it into something with heft and force. Milk focuses on the years of 1972 to 1978, when Harvey ran and ran for city government, united the gay community as a political force in San Francisco, and became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. His tragic assassination in 1978—by fellow member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors (aka a city councilman) Dan White—cut short his brilliant career. But his friends and colleagues, like activist Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenburg (Alison Pill), have kept his influence alive.
Of course, the film takes on more significance given current events; the recent passing of Proposition 8 in California proves that there's still a long way to go for the gay community and basic civil rights. The specter of this ballot hung heavily over the recent press conference, which had Van Sant, Brolin, Penn, Black, Pill, Hirsch, and James Franco (all the men with uniform Van Dyck beards) weighing in on Harvey Milk, his legacy, and how this film pays tribute to his dazzling life and career.
Why do the movie?
Sean Penn: There were challenges in this that were exciting. It started with Gus Van Sant, and Lance's sensational script... it was a no-brainer. And I [knew I] could lay on top of that all the values that Harvey Milk's life has.
Josh Brolin: I had a very visceral reaction to the script, and I cried at the end. The last time I felt like that was when I was working on Flirting with Disaster. I'm just happy I'm in the film, that the film exists. I watched The Times of Harvey Milk [Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary about Milk] with my daughter, and I was amazed by who he was, and sad that no one really talked to me about him [before].
Dustin Lance Black: It was a very personal story. I heard it when I needed to hear it as a teenager, [but] it's not out there anymore. When I first heard of it, I thought, who's Harvey Milk? Was he a milk salesman? How has this not been out there? It's pathetic that I didn't know.
Gus Van Sant: I've done a few films with gay characters, but [the characters] weren't super positive. The political stories are always really interesting to tell. Harvey was someone like Abbie Hoffman, almost [as a rabble-rouser and leader], who also represented his gay community.
What sparked the use of archival footage in the film?
Black: The archival stuff came out of trying to transcribe Anita Bryant [a singer who campaigned against homosexuality in Dade County, Florida, and figures into the film]. I worried she might become caricature and evil and I wanted her to speak for herself.
Van Sant: We shot with the idea that we'd use 16-mm—we were going for a look that would go with full-on documentary footage throughout. There's verisimilitude. In bringing the audience right into the period, documentary footage always succeeded with that. [It got dropped when] we had fears that we were shooting in a format that was unstable.
How did you approach playing these characters, whether they've passed on or whether they're still alive?
Penn: The documentary and additional archival footage was helpful. I'd watch it, like you'd have music on in the background—I kept it on all the time. After awhile, the synapses start to connect. The most exciting version of Harvey Milk was Harvey. The guy is the movie star of that documentary. He's an electric, warm, guy.
Emile Hirsch: Cleve was just very mischievous and funny. It was a way that Cleve bonded with Harvey—over humor—they would go at each other. Harvey put him on course for who he was going to be as a man. [Cleve] really gave me an idea of what it was like psychologically. He would debunk Castro myths, like "bathhouses in the 70s." This was the most fun thing in the whole world [according to Cleve]—the ultimate candy store.
James Franco [who played Harvey's lover Scott Smith]: I read a bunch of stuff, and it was helpful to get a sense of the time. I did have to depend on stories from those who knew him. He was a supportive guy. Scott was there through big moments in Harvey's life: when he came out, when he moved to San Francisco, and when he started politics—he was the campaign manager. He'd do whatever he could to help Harvey achieve whatever he wanted to do.
Brolin: I talked to some cops who'd known [city councilman Dan White] and taped his confession. It was extremely revealing—his sense of arrogance, and his sense of being a victim. [When I met Charlie, Dan's son,] he had a severe reaction when I walked in. He was very happy once I spoke with him for a while. I was thinking, how did this decent guy get to a point where the only power he could muster was shooting a guy?
When we were starting to shoot, the first time I [read my lines], I looked at Cleve [who knew Dan White], and he gave me a look like, "He's playing Dan? He's not very good, that's not right." The next time I saw him, I was in my costume and with the hair and there was this reaction. [Brolin puts his hands to his mouth and gasps.]
What do you think of Proposition 8's passing in California?
Van Sant: It's mobilized and brought together the gay community. The younger gay community, it's their time, they're taking it to the streets. There's a new energy that's kind of inspiring, a new energy of a different time, bonded together in the Castro. The political strategies—the nuts and bolts [of Milk]—are inspiring. It would play to the gay civil rights issue today.
Penn: As long as [gay rights are] an issue, it's an obscenity. If the movie [says] any of that, it would make us happy and proud.
Black: Sadly, Proposition 8 ended up looking more like Dade County where the gay community went down. We need history like this so we don't go down with the fight. The literature [in Dade County] didn't say "gay" or "lesbian." That would help in future fights. [At this comment, a voice in the crowd remarks, "What future?"]
Van Sant: We're seeing both raw hatred and support—both sides playing out in press and community.
Black: Harvey Milk was great at grabbing headlines, getting attention, and putting it out there. Where are we? Where are our gay and lesbian people?
Penn: Fewer people would've died of AIDS. Ronald Reagan would've been forced to address it. Milk was a leader, he was focused on the gay movement. He would've advanced that argument a lot sooner.
Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, is now available to screen on your computer for $7.99 via Amazon's Video on Demand program (and it's only $1.99 to digitally "rent").