‘Milk’ and California politics: It’s deja vu all over again


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It feels like nearly every journalist I’ve talked to this week has just been to a screening of ‘Milk,’ Gus Van Sant’s lively biopic about San Francisco’s pioneering gay activist Harvey Milk. The chatter about the film -- Is it an Oscar contender? Is it too admiring? Does Sean Penn sound exactly like your Aunt Sophie from the Bronx? -- has been nonstop, which is only pouring more salt on the wounds over at the Hollywood Reporter, which ran a piece Monday claiming that Focus, the film’s distributor, was hiding the movie.

Even more embarrassing, the piece went on to contend that Focus needs to persuade senior citizens to see the movie in order for it to succeed, citing a recent Las Vegas screening where several seniors attempted to leave the movie during a brief gay love scene. Even though the seniors actually stayed -- they were trapped in a middle aisle -- the Reporter concluded that ‘these are the viewers Focus must woo.’ If Focus really needs to woo my Aunt Toots to make ‘Milk’ a success, we’re all in a heap of trouble, but I suspect that this anecdote tells us more about clueless trade reporting than an actual marketing challenge.


Focus chief James Schamus was so insulted that he fired off a cranky letter to the Reporter, slagging its story, boasting about his own marketing campaign and rattling off the names of all the California politicians who are on the film’s benefit committee. He did manage to make one salient point--the ‘Milk’ premiere arrives the week before a crucial election, ‘one which includes an anti-gay state proposition much like the one Harvey Milk vanquished 30 years ago.’

Today the anti-gay measure is Proposition 8. Thirty years ago, it was Proposition 6, a ballot initiative masterminded by California state senator John Briggs, which would ban gays and lesbians - as well as any gay rights supporter -- from teaching in California public schools. To add insult to injury, Briggs publicly called gay-friendly San Francisco a ‘sexual garbage heap.’ Milk led the opposition to the incendiary initiative, traveling across the state engaging Briggs in a series of colorful debates. ‘Milk’ re-creates one of their public encounters where Milk quipped: ‘If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you’d sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.’ The proposition lost by more than a million votes. It was the high water mark of Milk’s political career.

The parallels between the events of 30 years ago and today are striking. My colleague Rachel Abramowitz has talked to the ‘Milk’ filmmakers about the film’s connection with today’s events. Here’s her report:

It’s hard not to watch Gus Van Sant’s moving film ‘Milk,’ about the life of gay activist Harvey Milk, and not think how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. At the film’s premiere Tuesday night in the Castro area of San Francisco -- the launching ground for Milk’s political career -- the filmmakers wore ‘Say No on 8’ buttons, and protesters lined up across the street to show their vociferous opposition to the controversial ballot measure, which would ban gay marriage in California.

It’s been 30 years since Milk, a gregarious, charismatic loudmouth, became the first openly gay person to win elected city office in America when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Eleven months later, he and Mayor George Moscone were cruelly and methodically gunned down by deranged, conservative council member Dan White. But in the interim, Milk led the battle to defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned gays from teaching in the public schools and removed ‘known homosexuals’ and their supporters from their jobs. The film presents a vivid acid flashback to the era of orange juice queen Anita Bryant, who was spearheading anti-gay initiatives in Florida, Minnesota, Kansas and Oregon, with religious sanctimony.

And now, even after all this time -- after gay culture has become mainstream culture, Barney Frank became a stalwart of the congress, and Ellen and Portia’s wedding graced the cover of People -- California is again awash in a political battle over gay rights, a fight that has national repercussions. Some 11,000 people have already been married in California since it became legal four years ago. Millions of dollars have been spent by advocates on both sides, including out-of-state conservative Christian organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and California institutions such as Apple computers and Steven Spielberg, who’ve contributed to the ‘No on 8’ campaign.


‘What’s funny is the parallels initially were completely coincidental,’ says producer Bruce Cohen. ‘When [Dustin Lance Black] wrote the script, ‘No on 8’ didn’t even exist. We didn’t know Prop. 8 was going to be on the ballot.’ When Cohen first saw the director’s cut, ‘I was stunned and really saddened by the parallels. It’s 30 years later, and it’s the exact same story.’

Ironically enough, in his speeches, Milk emphasized the language of hope, much like Barack Obama has done years later. As Milk said in one of his most famous addresses, ‘I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living.’

‘Those are Harvey’s speeches word for word,’ says Cohen, who is a leader in the campaign to stop Proposition 8. ‘We had the script and we hadn’t started shooting when suddenly Barack Obama came on to the national scene with this message of hope and change.’

Despite the similarities, producer Michael London says that the filmmakers have worked hard to keep the film from being merely ‘swept up in the discourse of current politics.’ Anchored by Sean Penn’s
performance as Milk (voluble, scrappy and refreshingly free of Penn’s frequent macho-theatrics), ‘Milk’ isn’t an Oliver Stone-type political tract, or political medicine for the already converted, but rather an
unexpectedly emotional Gus Van Sant take on a flawed but perennially interesting outsider clawing, seducing, cajoling and willing himself into political power. It captures the sometimes loopy, often optimistic energy of grass-roots politics.

London explains, ‘Our general strategy was not to show the movie too early and not let it become part of the national politics’ (i.e. vivisected in the agenda-wielding blogosphere). ‘It’s a really emotional experience and we wanted to protect that.’