FILM: Milk

‘Milk’ directed by Gus Van Sant, 2009

Reviewed by Thomas Gartrell | 20 February 2009

Hands up… until the film opened, I didn’t know what Milk was about – let alone who Harvey Milk was and what he stood for. So I was annoyed when a friend gave away the ending just before I went to see it. But rest assured, it takes nothing away from Milk to know in advance that its main character, American gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, was assassinated. The film makes this clear from the start, with news footage announcing the murder, interspersed with flashbacks to Milk (played by Sean Penn), recording a message to be read in such an event. Knowing that Milk is doomed from the outset, we are left to worry how and when this moment will come.

Having told us the tragic conclusion and given us a glimpse of the inspiring activist (“My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you” – cue simultaneous, fist-clenched cheer from the crowd), the film takes us back ten years to Harvey Milk, clean-shaven, suit-wearing businessman and Republican supporter. Penn convincingly portrays a fun, friendly and flirtatious Milk who, though disappointed at reaching 40 years of age without achieving anything useful, is clearly far from over the hill, capable of attracting men far younger than himself. After moving to California with his boyfriend (played by Scott Smith) to “get in with a new crowd”, the happy couple open a photographic store. However, they are instantly greeted with hostility, when the homophobia underlying an apparently neighbourly handshake is revealed by a rude wipe of the hand.

The true nature and extent of this prejudice is skilfully revealed through a first attempt at gay solidarity. Milk suggests that members of the gay community carry whistles to alert each other in the likely event of a violent, homophobic attack. The inadequacy of this strategy is literally reflected by a close-up shot of a fallen whistle, which mirrors Milk talking with a policeman, the latter apparently unmoved by the fate of whistle’s murdered owner. Whether the policeman was complicit in the crime or simply arrived too late, the symbolism is moving and stark: neither the whistle nor the policeman did their job, and a man lies dead as a consequence.

Milk’s response is positive. Whistles are no longer enough: gay men need their own elected representatives, and Milk is prepared to put himself forward. One of the triumphs of Milk is its representation of the long hard political struggle that ensues. It is no easy ride from Milk’s first soapbox speech (with next to no audience) to inspiring speeches at mass demonstrations. Trouble winning support from even openly homosexual men, combined with failure upon failure in elections reflect the actual difficulties of building a meaningful political movement in terms of time, energy and tactics. The struggle is also realistic: while Milk makes an inspiring and tactically shrewd leader, he is no lone crusader, but has a dedicated cadres of activists who push him forward in his darker moments.

Most importantly though, Milk emphasises the importance of public (rather than private) freedom, and the courage required to achieve this. Throughout the film, genuine 1970s news footage keeps the action rooted in reality. In one of these clips, a young man says, “they can be gay in their own homes if they want to – I don’t want to see it” – in other words: gay men should be second class citizens, their sexuality confined to the private sphere, a dirty secret rather than a publicly accepted way of life. Milk’s bold riposte tackles the issue head on, calling on all gays to “come out” to their families, friends and colleagues, refusing to keep homosexuality out of sight and mind. Such a tactic takes guts on the part of those involved: once you’ve come out of the closet, you can’t go back in – you’ve stood up to be counted and put yourself on the line. This is inspiring today, when private “freedoms”, such as not being disturbed by noisy demonstrations, are often held up as more important than the public freedom to protest.

Some have criticised the film for not inspecting the “interesting flaws and foibles which made [Milk] human” (1), pointing to the four of his ex-lovers that committed suicide. In fact, the film does not flinch from such relationship troubles, though it roots them in Milk’s overriding commitment to politics and the alleged emotional instability of his partners, rather than a lack of effort or concern on Milk’s part. Besides, the film’s focus is on the political, and even here, Milk is not made out as a saint. His political will to succeed is not tempered by keeping promises, and he is prepared to use other issues, such as clearing up dogs’ mess, to gain public trust. True, possible contradictions between Milk’s Republicanism and radical gay politics could have been explored, but his party-political preferences are at least mentioned.

However, despite such criticisms, Milk truly captures the importance of the battles being fought and the courage of those involved. As someone who didn’t know how Milk was assassinated, the knowledge that he would be combined with written death threats to create a massive sense of fear whenever Milk mounted a soapbox. As a result, we respect Milk much more for what he was doing; he knew his life was at risk, but put it on the line to realise freedom and equality. Not knowing the full story beforehand certainly gave me some small sense of the fear Milk must have felt, helping to demonstrate his true courage. It is this emphasis on brave and public struggle that makes Milk an inspiring and moving film.

1. Chris Tookey (23 Jan 2009) ‘Milk’s dark side stays in the closet’, Daily Mail.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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