The Academy Award for best actor was awarded to Sean Penn for his role in “Milk.” Penn is studied and thoughtful, impassioned and immediately sympathetic as Milk. It’s easy to see how he attracts so much support and how his drive and commitment don’t leave enough time for a “real” life. When Penn smiles, there’s always pain there – it’s almost a wince – and he smiles a lot in this movie.
“Milk” is a powerful movie that will stir more than a few hearts and minds.
Milk is a 2008 biographical film on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film stars Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as Milk’s assassin, Supervisor Dan White. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds. Ultimately, it received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, winning two for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black.
Attempts to put Milk’s life to film followed a 1984 Oscar-winning documentary of his life and the aftermath of his assassination, titled The Times of Harvey Milk, which was loosely based upon Randy Shilts’ biography, The Mayor of Castro Street. Much of Milk was filmed on Castro Street and various locations in San Francisco, including Milk’s former storefront, Castro Camera.
Milk begins on Harvey Milk’s 40th birthday, when he was living in New York City and had not yet settled in San Francisco. It chronicles his foray into city politics, and the various battles he waged in the Castro neighborhood as well as throughout the city, and political campaigns to limit the rights of gay people in 1977 and 1978 run by Anita Bryant and John Briggs. His romantic and political relationships are also addressed, as is his tenuous affiliation with troubled Supervisor Dan White; the film ends with White’s double murder of Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The film’s release was tied to the 2008 California voter referendum on gay marriage, Proposition 8, when it made its premiere at the Castro Theater two weeks before election day.
Milk opens with archival footage of police raiding gay bars and arresting patrons during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Dianne Feinstein’s November 27, 1978, announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone have been assassinated. Milk is seen recording his will throughout the film, nine days (November 18, 1978) before the assassinations. The film then flashes back to New York City in 1970, the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday and his first meeting with his much younger lover, Scott Smith.
Unsatisfied with his life and in need of a change, Milk and Smith decide to move to San Francisco in the hope of finding larger acceptance of their relationship. They open Castro Camera in the heart of Eureka Valley, a working class neighborhood in the process of evolving into a predominantly gay neighborhood known as The Castro. Frustrated by the opposition they encounter in the once Irish-Catholic neighborhood, Milk utilizes his background as a businessman to become a gay activist, eventually becoming a mentor for Cleve Jones. Early on, Smith serves as Milk’s campaign manager, but his frustration grows with Milk’s obsessive devotion to politics, and he leaves him. Milk later meets Jack Lira, a sweet-natured but unbalanced young man. As with Smith, however, Lira cannot tolerate Milk’s devotion to political activism, and eventually hangs himself.
After two unsuccessful political campaigns in 1973 and 1975 to become a city supervisor and a third in 1976 for the California State Assembly, Milk finally wins a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 for District 5. His victory makes him the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in the United States. Milk subsequently meets fellow Supervisor Dan White, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer and firefighter. White, who is politically and socially conservative, has a difficult relationship with Milk. He has a growing resentment for Milk, largely due to the attention paid to Milk by the press and his colleagues.
Milk and White forge a complex working relationship. Milk is invited to, and attends, the christening of White’s first child, and White asks for Milk’s assistance in preventing a psychiatric hospital from opening in White’s district, possibly in exchange for White’s support of Milk’s citywide gay rights ordinance. When Milk fails to support White, White feels betrayed, and ultimately becomes the sole vote against the gay rights ordinance. Milk also launches an effort to defeat Proposition 6, an initiative on the California state ballot in November 1978. Sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County, Proposition 6 seeks to ban gays and lesbians (in addition to anyone who supports them) from working in California’s public schools. It is also part of a nationwide conservative movement that starts with the successful campaign headed by Anita Bryant and her organization Save Our Children in Dade County, Florida to repeal a local gay rights ordinance.
On November 7, 1978, after working tirelessly against Proposition 6, Milk and his supporters rejoice in the wake of its defeat. The increasingly unstable White is in favor of a supervisor pay raise, but does not get much support, and shortly after supporting the proposition, resigns from the Board. He later changes his mind and asks the city to rescind his decision. Mayor Moscone denies his request, after having been lobbied by Milk to not reinstate White.
On the morning of November 27, 1978, White enters San Francisco City Hall through a basement window to conceal a gun from metal detectors. He requests another meeting with Moscone, who rebuffs his request for re-appointment. Enraged, White shoots Moscone and then Milk. The film suggests that Milk believed that White might be a closeted gay man.
The film ends with an aerial shot of the candlelight vigil held by thousands for Milk and Moscone throughout the streets of the city.
Written by Luca Aquilanti