“If They Know Us…”

Published in: March-April 2009 issue.


HARVEY MILK was working for an insurance company in New York City before he became the flamboyant politician portrayed in Gus Van Sant’s recently released movie, Milk; he lived on the Upper West Side, voted for Goldwater, and loved to go to the opera. I’d have loved to see a bit of the life that was suffocating him before he became the Harvey Milk we know today. The movie begins, however, with Milk’s decision to change his life—an encounter with a hippy in the subway on the eve of Milk’s fortieth birthday, when he fast-talks his future boyfriend, Scott Smith, into going home with him. The next thing we know, the two men are bound for California.

From the very start, one of the obsessions of Harvey Milk was his insistence that gay people come out of the closet. The appeal of San Francisco for Milk and Smith—and so many gay men at that time—was simply the fact that they wouldn’t have to hide their sexuality there. It’s not exactly smooth going, however, once they arrive: after they open up a camera shop in the Castro—still a predominantly working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood—a businessman from across the street walks over and lets Milk know that he’s not wanted here by saying that there are two laws, man’s and God’s. It’s not God’s law that bothers Milk; it’s man’s—specifically the lack of police response to a recent gay bashing. Milk not only decides to get rid of police oppression, he wants gay people to be cops. So he picks up a bullhorn and develops a stump speech that always begins with “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”—a reference to the old canard that, because gays can’t reproduce, they have to seduce young people into their ranks.

There have been many works of art derived from the life of Harvey Milk (including an opera), and one of them, an Oscar-winning documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk, is composed of film taken during the events depicted in Milk. The documentary, directed by Rob Epstein (who also

The movie’s re-creation of window of Harvey Milk’s camera shop cum campaign headquarters during his run for city supervisor.
The movie’s re-creation of window of Harvey Milk’s camera shop cum campaign headquarters
during his run for city supervisor.

made Word Is Out), covers the trial of Dan White for Milk’s murder, which Van Sant’s movie does not. The newsreel footage with which Milk opens depicts raids on gay bars whose patrons are taken out and put in what used to be called paddy wagons. In one scene a man is sitting at a bar with his right hand up to protect his identity; but when he can stand it no longer, he throws a drink in the cameraman’s (and the viewer’s) face. It’s one of the most memorable moments in Milk—a perfect image of the boiling over of resentment against police persecution that resulted, on the East Coast, in the Stonewall Riots.

The gay rights movement did not begin at Stonewall, of course; it began in many cities, and one of them was San Francisco, which, Milk reminds us, used to be the Mother Church of gay culture. San Francisco was so equated with sexual liberation in the 60’s and 70’s that, once Milk and Smith get there, the movie assumes the giddy feeling of those Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney films in which all they want to do is put on a show. Gay migrants from all over gather in the camera shop, exchange horror stories, and—voilà!—a movement is born. Unfortunately, there is a lot of exposition before we get to this point, so that some time into Milk I was wondering: when will this movie start? The problem is that there’s a lot of information to impart.

Attempts to make a film from Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk had failed before this one used an original script from a screenwriter who did his own interviews with people who had been there. But much of Milk still comes across as a history lesson. It must have been difficult to write a biography of 400 pages; imagine reducing a life to a two-hour film and, worse, finding ways to convey facts in a dramatic narrative. Milk lies somewhere between a documentary and a conventional movie. The opening footage of the gay bar raids is only the first newsreel clip woven into the film—Diane Feinstein announcing the murders just after discovering the bodies is another, as is Anita Bryant comparing homosexuals to thieves and prostitutes. The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott called the interweaving of real and reconstructed scenes “a marvel.” For me, this was the problem with the movie: it’s neither fish nor fowl, documentary nor feature film. The minute a recreated scene is over we revert to a documentary or documentary-like clip; finally the movie becomes all crowd scenes, all raised bullhorns, all candlelight marches, till even these images begin to blur.

In most biopics there’s a gap between the private and public worlds of the hero; in Milk it’s the contrast between Harvey’s success with the crowd and his difficulty with lovers. Scott Smith left Milk because he got tired of the political campaigns, and his successor, Jack Lira, leaves Harvey (in an even more dramatic way) for the same reason. Diego Luna plays Lira as an emotionally unstable queen. James Franco plays Scott Smith as a sweet hippy (cloud of curls, beatific smile) and then as a Castro clone (short hair, moustache)—a change in hairstyle that conveys as well as anything in the movie the transition from the 60’s to the 70’s, from New York to San Francisco. Harvey gave so much of himself to the movement there wasn’t much time left over for whoever was his boyfriend. The irony is huge; but it’s the nostalgia for the original relationship between Smith and Milk that provides many of the most sentimental moments in the movie, the relief from all that history. The dilemma the filmmakers faced was that a documentary about Milk had already been made; so what could a movie add? It could fill in the personal life.

This fall there was an exhibit in the San Francisco Public Library that included letters from Harvey Milk to Scott Smith—which a friend out there quoted in an e-mail to show me what kind of sex Harvey was into. Such details are left out of Milk. The sexual aspects of that extraordinary decade in San Francisco are tangential to this story. Milk is about a political movement; the viewer has no way of knowing what the real Harvey Milk was like, any more than it does Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia. I suppose one should look at the documentary or read Shilts’ book for that. A movie goes for emotions. When gay friends call Milk “astonishing” and “devastating” and one says he wept throughout, one cannot argue with that. There are things in Milk that only movies can do—like score “Over the Rainbow” over a gay rights march. Even the most detached viewer will tear up at times in this movie. Milk is a reminder of many people who are gone, of a culture and time that were brave and spontaneous and heroic. It’s Harvey Milk, but also the gay rights movement itself, that reviewers are responding to, I suspect.

Even the previews we were shown before Milk started (at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.) were testaments to this. The first was for Save Me, a film about attempts to “cure” gay men. The second was for Were the World Mine, a film about an all-male version of a Shakespeare play. When the latter was over, a friend turned to me and said: “How does it feel to be demographically niched?” Precisely. Even that was a result, you could say, of Harvey Milk’s work. Today we are free in a way that the men who were being arrested in those gay bars fifty years ago in the opening of Milk were not; we do not have to hide, pretend, gender-change our lovers, or worry quite as much while walking home from a gay bar (though patrons of a nearby African-American nightclub have attacked people leaving the Eagle here in Washington, and gay-bashing continues every day). We’re no longer subject to blackmail or being executed (like those young men in Iran), and this lifting of a huge weight off our shoulders must be attributed in part to Harvey Milk.

I suspect that’s why people have responded so passionately to this movie: they’re responding to the gay rights movement itself. As of this writing, there are predictions that Milk will win the award for Best Picture that Brokeback Mountain should have received three years ago—in part because of Proposition 8. (Not only is Milk about politics, so is its release.) In fact, in praising Milk, a reviewer on Salon.com dismissed Brokeback as a “weepie” made by a straight man—even though Brokeback was, I think, a much more moving work of art.

This may be a pointless comparison: Brokeback is about love; Milk is about politics. Brokeback is about internalized homophobia; Milk is about externalized homophobia. Brokeback takes place about a decade earlier than Milk; the oppression with which they lived is why the story of the gay rights movement came to mean so much. Jack and Ennis did not make the trip to San Francisco that Harvey and Scott and thousands of others did; it probably never occurred to them. (They were drinking too much, a cynical friend joked.) Brokeback is about two men who did not move to the Castro; Milk depicts the solution to their problem, in a way. What Harvey Milk did was supposed to help people trapped in the provinces from which so many of the transplants in Milk’s camera shop had fled. One of the most moving scenes in Milk is a young man trapped in Minnesota who calls Harvey long distance—in one of those scenes that engender feelings even the best documentaries cannot touch. I suppose this is to the good: more people go to feature films than go to documentaries, and they will be moved by the plight of that youth.

Maybe Milk is a tad tedious because we view it from the relative comfort of post-gay America. The good and bad guys are never hard to spot—something that robs Milk of a certain suspense, since we know who’s supposed to win. But that’s only because of what Milk and his cohorts did. The obstacles overcome, the bravery of an openly gay politician who took the stage despite death threats, remain remarkable. If the script is clunky, if it introduces characters who are then dropped, that may be because it had to squeeze in so much; and if Milk is manipulative, sentimental, and corny in places, it has already, according to The New York Times, inspired a surge of gay activism among young gay people in California outraged by the passage of Proposition 8. Surely this film will affect a lot of people in that way; we don’t judge all cultural artifacts by æsthetic standards.

So what is the message of Milk? In the movie, Harvey’s campaign has two elements that were in a sense the same thing: the drive for a gay rights bill (now morphed into gay marriage) and his insistence that gay people come out of the closet. The latter was part of the strategy to defeat Prop 6, or the Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. Milk’s idea for defeating it was simple: “If they know us,” he said, “they don’t vote against us.” All they had to do to defeat Proposition 6, Milk said, was to show the public that gay people were not what Anita Bryant compared them to: thieves and prostitutes.

Proposition 6 was defeated, just before Dan White shot Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk inside City Hall. Prop 8 passed, some say, in part because gay activists did not use the tactics that Harvey Milk would have deployed. Milk shows him doing whatever it took to defeat Prop 6, including ambushing Briggs in a parking lot to make him debate the proposition in public. Harvey Milk was all about being visible. (“Never blend in,” says the T-shirt connected with the movie, a remark Milk makes to Cleve Jones when he advises him to take full advantage of the dramatic staircase when visiting City Hall.) The news that Obama has named Nancy Sutley, an openly gay deputy mayor of Los Angeles, to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality reminds us that Harvey Milk was famous for being the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Thirty years after Milk’s murder, however, National Coming Out Day is pretty well ignored. Gay figures in politics and the arts still tend to be wrenched out of the closet by an e-mail or an incident. But that was Milk’s dream: visibility.

In one of the movie’s most dramatic moments, after Milk has quietly insisted that everyone on his staff be out to his parents, he hands a telephone to a young man who says his father does not know he’s gay. In a scene reminiscent of The Boys in the Band, the staffer leaves the room to make the call. How many people still cannot do that—despite all the changes Milk and the gay community of San Francisco wrought—for the same reasons that drove Harvey and Scott to San Francisco almost fifty years ago. How indebted we are to people who came before us—and how easy it is to assume that the freedoms people fought for were always there. The achievement of Milk is that it reminds us otherwise.