Arts and Entertainment

Milk honors influencial politician

By Denebola
Published: December 2008

By Erica Rose

Milk is not a typical biographical film. Told as the confession of Harvey Milk, Milk follows the story of an unconventional political figurehead as he struggles to rise to the top.

In the late 1970s Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay politician to hold a political office in the United States. With help from the growing homosexual community in San Francisco, Milk was able to take down propositions that threatened civil rights such as Proposition 6, which would have made firing openly gay teachers’€and any public school employees who supported gay rights’€mandatory.

Throughout the film, Milk, played by Sean Penn, records his life-story as he reads off of a yellow pad, indirectly narrating the entire movie. These intimate scenes humanize the political maverick, and dramatize the events leading to his assassination. Written by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love), Milk not only tells the story of a revolutionary political figure, but illustrates an atypical man and his quest for civil rights.

Milk is not truly a biographical film, for it begins on Milk’s 40th birthday. Living in New York City, Milk has led a closeted life, discreetly settling down with partner Scott Smith, played by James Franco.

The early 1970s had little tolerance for the alternative lifestyle that now characterizes much of modern-day San Francisco. The film refocuses on the developing the Milk-Smith union while heightening Milk’s reputation as “The Mayor of Castro Street.

In 1972, Milk decides to run for office, as a San Francisco City Supervisor. He eventually loses, but his support multiplies, as women, the elderly, and other minorities begin to support him in his quest for office. One of Milk’s motivations for his crusade for gay rights is the onslaught of efforts by evangelist entertainer Anita Bryant to denounce the homosexual agenda in Florida’s Dade County region.

Bryant was a staunch advocate of squashing the rising gay rights movement, expressing a fear of the impact of the “homosexual lifestyle on young Americans. Shown only in archival television clips, Bryant is one of the main antagonists in the film as a symbol of the rising evangelical right-wing.

After many failed campaigns, and a failed relationship, Milk finally wins in 1978. His strong political team included Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a lesbian with savvy connections with the press. With their help, Milk becomes the face of gay activism and enters the San Francisco government as a force to be reckoned with.

Milk relies on its main character for emotional and theatrical effectiveness. Sean Penn brilliantly captures Milk in every detail. Penn perfected his lisp, hand gestures, and smile, overshadowing the supporting characters in every way. Really the film’s other characters are superfluous, for Van Sant makes Milk a symbol’€the face of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Sean Penn not only plays Milk, he portrays a movement and a lifestyle.

Josh Brolin plays Dan White, another San Francisco City Supervisor. He represents the more conservative, working-class, Irish Catholic part of the city that has been overpowered by the liberal uprising. White, an outcast on the generally liberal Board of Supervisors, first attempts to work with Milk for political strategy. When Milk refuses to vote for a proposition that would remove a psychiatric ward from White’s district, White becomes increasingly angry, eventually assassinating Milk and San Francisco’s Mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber).

White’s desperate actions create outrage and hysteria highlighted in the film by candlelit vigils. White received a mere “slap on the wrist, landing only a handful of years in jail.

What the film lacks, however, is the illustration of White’s psychological breakdown. It is never fully clear why he decided to assassinate two of the most powerful individuals in San Francisco. The absence of White’s torrid emotional collapse further mystifies the motivation for the assassination.

Yet, Dan White is also a symbol, this time of the impending evangelical, family-first, movement that threatened gay rights around the country.

Although Milk died 30 years ago, his activism and monumental accomplishments are still relevant today. The political relevance makes Milk a poignant film. Though there is still work left to be done, defining progress has been made since Milk’s political career. As Milk said, “All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.

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