Harvey Milk was 48-years-old when he became the first openly gay man elected to public office, and one of Milk’s largest battles centered on the fight in 1978 against California’s Proposition 6, which—if passed—would effectively fire homosexuals who taught in public schools. Sound somewhat familiar to the recent Proposition 8? So, why didn’t the movie producers release “Milk” before Election Day in order to influence voters, to show what Harvey and his friends fought for, to show how the passage of Proposition 8 is a step back in the gay rights movement that Harvey Milk fought so hard, and even died, for?
For one, producers were worried that the movie wouldn’t have a shelf life after Election Day, that’d it be seen as just a propaganda piece and nothing more.
The movie does, at times, teeter on the fine line between propaganda and a biopic of the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). But in the end, the movie is the inspiring story of Harvey Milk’s final, influential years, and how he struggled against not only evangelical Christians, like Anita Bryant who vocally dismissed homosexuals as ‘un-natural’, but also gays already in the gay political community who tried to quietly push a human rights agenda forward, rather than begin a gay rights movement.
Director Gus Van Sant spliced real footage from the ‘70s—such as notable speeches from Bryant—seamlessly with the rest of the movie’s grainy footage, creating a home-video feel, as if to say, ‘This is real life, people.’
The effect works, but the beginning speeds through Milk’s decision to run for political office, not just once, but four times, making it difficult to understand why Milk’s long-time boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), has trouble with Milk’s sudden political convictions. After all, the movie is keen to point out that Harvey was forty when he finally decided to ‘do something’ with his life—so what did influence him to finally run for office? Was it all about gay rights?
History suggests it was more about Milk’s frustrations with the political machine as a whole, about how little, and how slowly, things change. That isn’t totally clear in the movie and that’s most likely purposeful.
After all, the focus of the movie is clearly Harvey’s dedication to starting a gay right’s movement, encouraging his friends to come out of the closet to their friends and family—because how can friends and family discriminate against homosexuals and believe them to be unintelligent, un-natural people, if they realize they have friends and family members that they love who are gay? That’s, at least, what Milk’s argument is.
The movie briefly touches on the other issues Harvey cares about and fights for, but the message is clear: Milk is dedicated to the gay rights movement above all else, even if it means putting his life at risk. And this is where the movie excels.
As a supervisor in San Francisco, we see Harvey’s struggles as he forms—and then breaks—alliances, most notably with supervisor Dan White. We are given a glimpse (albeit, a very brief one) about why the gay rights movement is so important to Milk—three of his past four boyfriends committed suicide, unwilling to live in such an un-accepting world.
Milk begins to change the world by starting with San Francisco, by starting with individuals, by showing people that homosexuals are people too, and, in fact, they’re someone’s brother, sister, friend, cousin, mother, father, etc.
So, why was the movie released today, the day before Thanksgiving, and not before Election Day?
Tomorrow, November 27th, is the 30th anniversary of his death. The movie is a reminder of what Harvey Milk’s life stood for, and what we still need to fight against, namely Proposition 8 but also intolerance in general—and that’s how this movie will have plenty of shelf life for many years to come.