He didn’t want to recruit you in the way that his detractors would want you think. He didn’t care if you were gay like he was or straight and he had no interest in getting straight people to convert to homosexuality, if such a thing were possible. He was interested in recruiting to the cause of civil rights for gays, one the last segments of society in the 1970s who were still being legally denied them.
Director Gus Van Sant’s film Milk examines the activist’s life, from his rise as a community activist in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to his election to the city’s Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to hold a major public office in the United States to his tragic death at the hands of fellow supervisor Dan White, played with a lantern-jawed intensity by Josh Brolin, in his City Hall office. That’s not really a spoiler, as the movie reveals this in its opening moments for anyone not already familiar with his story. It is an interesting narrative decision and one that permeates each of Harvey’s victories with a subtle sense of foreboding as his path slowly leads him to his fate.
As portrayed by Sean Penn, Harvey Milk is very much a man whom has greatness thrust upon him by virtue of simply doing what he feels is the right thing. It is a powerful and yet at times subtle performance, with Penn able to balance Harvey’s mixed emotions as his rising political career drives a wedge between him and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco). But when Harvey speaks, there’s a tenor that can often be found in the best of public speakers, be they politicians or preachers. His words reach out and enrapture. It is easy to see how he was able to affect the change that he did.
There are some historians who would argue that the focus of Dan White’s anger that fateful day was Mayor George Moscone and that Milk was only a secondary target for his rage. While there is some brief mention of the tension between White and Moscone, Van Sant’s film focuses more on Milk’s and White’s relationship. White’s strongly conservative upbringing doesn’t equip him for dealing with Harvey as a human being. As he finds the bigoted notions he has about gay men being proven wrong, he finds his world, and his mental stability, crumbling around him.
Interestingly, although White’s legal defense for the murders – the now infamous “Twinkie Defense,” in which White’s attorney argued that White was imbalanced due to eating too many of the sugary junk food – is mentioned in some text that closes the film, it is never mentioned in the narrative itself. By its exclusion, Van Sant seems to be dismissing the notion and attributing White’s actions to more base and ugly motives.
There is no denying that the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, which revoked the right of gay couples to get married, gives the film an extra resonance and power. It may be that we will be unable to judge Milk’s effectiveness as just a movie about a man who fought for social change. For now, though, it serves as a powerful reminder that the change he fought has yet not been fully won.