BY KILIAN MELLOY
Although Milk, the new biopic about openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk from director Gus Van Sant, was not intended as a commentary about Proposition 8–the voter-approved amendment to the California constitution that sets a precedent by repealing an existing right, that of marriage equality, for gay and lesbian families — the timing of the movie’s release, and the success of the anti-gay amendment, makes comparisons and parallels inevitable.
A major part of the plot of Milk is the story of how Harvey Milk helped spearhead the successful campaign, in 1978, to defeat a ballot initiative that would have made the firing of gay teachers — and, for that matter, straight teachers sympathetic to gays–mandatory under state law. That initiative, known as Proposition 6 (or, more popularly, The Briggs Initiative, after the politician who sponsored the measure), was supported by pro-Proposition 6 advocates with the same arguments used this year by pro-Proposition 8 supporters: namely, that the safety of children in schools was at stake.
The campaign in favor of the Briggs Initiative encountered the same arguments against the measure as well: the intrusion of the state into citizens’ private lives, the erosion of church and state given that religious denominations played such a central part in the promotion of the referendum, the enshrining of discrimination into law.
What the campaign against the Briggs Initiative also featured–something that the No on 8 campaign, which unsuccessfully attempted to convince voters to uphold marriage equality this past Election Day, lacked–were the faces of the people who would be impacted by the law. In a crucial scene, Milk (played by Sean Penn) condemns a flyer that argues against the Briggs Initiative without mentioning the word “gay.” Acting on his own, Milk issues an impassioned plea for gay Californians in the closet to emerge to the world, and to make themselves known: “They’ll vote for us two to one if they know one of us,” he explains.
The movie’s production was started in advance of Proposition 8 finding its way to the ballot, and Focus Features, the studio that produced the film, decided to marketing reasons not to put the film into release prior to the election, for fear of the movie being tied too closely to Proposition 8.
But that association was inevitable, to some degree, and the outrage and hundreds of demonstrations against the measure’s passage–protests that, with extraordinarily rare exceptions, have been peaceful–have only heightened the sense that the movie and the historical anti-gay measure it talks about, and the modern-day success of a ballot initiative that strips rights from selected families, are closely, deeply linked, in more than an ideological way.
The movie is by no means without flaws, but it speaks as powerfully and as passionately as another film that has been referenced in comparison to Milk–another movie from Focus Features, 2005’s Ang Lee-directed Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two Wyoming ranch hands who meet in the 1960s and maintain a secret, intermittent, but profoundly meaningful attachment for two decades.
Brokeback Mountain generated considerable Oscar buzz, and won the statuette in several categories, although it lost for best film. Similarly, Milk–released only days ago–has could be forgiven if it seems to emanate an aura of expectation in terms of Hollywood’s highest honor. Indeed, critics praise Van Sant’s direction, Penn’s performance, and composer Danny Elfman’s score.
Still, it’s Proposition 8 more than Brokeback Mountain or the Oscars that critics touch upon, couching topical references in their glowing reviews.
Critic Kennth Turan, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted in the opening paragraph of his review, “It was partly an accident of history that made Harvey Milk the first openly gay man elected to major public office in this country, so it’s fitting that yet another accident of history has made ’Milk,’ the earnest biopic about the man, more involving than it would otherwise be.”
Adds Turan, “It’s impossible to see ’Milk’s’ anti-Prop. 6 demonstrations, to read signs saying things like ’Gay rights now’ and ’Save our human rights,’ without thinking of the very current battle over Proposition 8 and its ban of gay marriage.
“This graphic demonstration that the struggles are far from over gives ’Milk’ a harder edge than its otherwise self-congratulatory tone could manage.”
In his review for The Christian Science Monitor, Peter Rainer skirts any mention to Proposition 8, save for one indirect reference, writing, “Essentially the film is saying that, at a time when civil rights for gays are still under attack, there is no one of Milk’s charisma on the scene to lead the charge.”
Similarly, Ann Hornaday’s review in The Washington Post largely skirts Proposition 8, though it cannot escape the contemporary political climate entirely. Hornaday’s review begins, “Once in a while, a movie arrives at such a perfect moment, its message and meaning so finely tuned to the current zeitgeist, that it seems less a cinematic event than a cosmic convergence, willed into being by a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars.”
Later on, Hornaday notes, “…history isn’t a straight line but an often heartbreaking two-steps-back gavotte. The point, as Harvey Milk taught so many so well, is to stay in the dance.”
J. Hoberman was less circumspect in his review for The Village Voice, writing, “Milk is so immediate that it’s impossible to separate the movie’s moment from this one.
“The 1978 victory over Prop. 6 merges with the current struggle against California’s Proposition 8, overturning the State Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.”
Continues Hoberman’s review, “A charismatic leader has yet to emerge, but there is… Milk, and its wholehearted devotion to the principle of equal protection under the law.”
Notes Hobeman, pranthetically, “Sound bites from the filmed demonstrations are near-identical to those culled from those held two weekends ago” against Proposition 8.
The Time Out New York review, penned by Melissa Anderson, notes, “Momentous political events earlier this month have amplified Milk’s significance.”
Continues Anderson, “I saw the film two days after the election, leading to an even more heightened response after Penn says, ’You gotta give ’em hope.’
“California’s homophobic Proposition 8 also won on Election Night; in one of Milk’s pivotal scenes, Proposition 6, which would have banned gays from teaching in California public schools, is solidly defeated.”
Queries Anderson, “Would an October release date of Milk have helped to ensure Prop 8’s defeat?
“Probably not; the notion itself is magical thinking. But Milk could achieve something far more wide-reaching. As the film powerfully shows, Harvey Milk believed that one of the most radical acts a gay person could commit was to come out.
“But the action didn’t stop there; it was merely a first step toward demanding what everyone should have: justice, equality, fairness.”
Writing for Slate, Dana Stevens addresses both a perceived weakness of style and a powerful, if accidental, connection through timing, writing, “In the movie’s heartbreaking last scene, shots of the actors merge with real-life footage of a candlelight vigil on Castro Street the night of Milk’s death.
“Ending a biopic with archival footage was a concession to convention on Van Sant’s part, but in the wake of California’s passing of Prop 8 (and the 30th anniversary of Milk’s death), this convergence of past and present feels more appropriate, and sadder, than ever.”
Other modern-day parallels also surface in the movie. Wrote The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris, “Milk was a natural leader. The movie makes it hard not to see in him a little of Barack Obama or vice versa.”
Adds Morris, “The similarities are chilling at times. They both ran as agents for change, a message that drew people to them, especially the young, and managed to win the support of folks in spite of their own bigotry.
“What you’re able to see is how far the country has come in four decades and how far it hasn’t,” Morris continues. “The day of Obama’s victory, voters also supported gay marriage bans in three states. Go figure.”
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Bill Wilson is a veteran photographer whose work is published by San Francisco Bay Area media. His photos capture decades-long historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past five years. Email Bill Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.