Film Review Milk: Inspiring Fear

[Guest Post by Amrita, from Indiequill]

Film MilkI’ve never found Sean Penn attractive. Shocking, I know, but all that brooding intensity is completely wasted on me, I’m afraid. Five minutes into Milk, however, as I watch him seduce the entirely-too-pretty James Franco in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a silly grin and a pick up line so tired they should shoot it to put it out of its misery, I suddenly got the hype.

It’s one of the many ways in which Penn so perfectly inhabits the character of Harvey Bernard Milk, the closeted insurance salesman from New York who became a gay rights activist, the first openly gay elected official in California and a symbol of hope for the LGBT community in the 1970s.

From the moment he bumps into Scott Smith (Franco), his lover for many years and a friend upto his assassination in 1978, in Milk, we’re constantly reminded that this is not a man who is conventionally handsome and is way too old to be deemed attractive in the gay scene he inhabits. But with his salesman charm and the sweetest smile you ever saw, his is a charisma that cannot be denied.


As the movie clips briskly along, you see him transform from the timid New York native who counsels the young Smith to be careful where he goes cruising to the man who openly makes out with his lover on the streets of San Francisco. On the other side of the continent from his old life and the fears that came with it, Harvey Milk is a man on a mission: forget bigotry, even mere tolerance will no longer do; he wants to be respected, openly acknowledged by the establishment (or as he prefers to call it, The Machine) for who he is.

That’s some dream for a man who can’t even get the gay establishment to back him, much less the larger Machine, which sends police officers with their badges covered to crack down on gay bars in the most brutal way possible. Although Milk and his avant garde friends revitalize his San Francisco neighborhood by making it gay friendly (now the preferred gentrification process in cities all over the United States), they are still at the mercy of the cops and bureaucrats who could care less.

As the neighborhood around Castro Street continues to attract more affluent people and its economy expands through the 1970s, the police continue their assault on the gay community… and pretty soon, Harvey Milk finds his soapbox. Although his political candidacy takes a while to find its wings, Milk is already the voice of the Castro and the gay community. He dubs himself the Mayor of Castro Street and the term catches on with the wider public.

But being the Mayor of Castro Street is far from a glamour job – it takes a toll on his personal life, and his political life continues to hammer around the fringes. Things finally come around for him, politically speaking, when the city allows each district to elect its own supervisor instead of following the citywide model it’d followed previously. In 1978, Harvey Milk is the first supervisor elected from the Castro District under the new rules.

It was going to be an interesting year, to say the least.

If director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black had set out to merely chronicle the life and evolution of a charismatic activist, Milk would still have been a pretty entertaining movie. But they have managed to make a movie about a lot more than that.

The first thing that strikes you about Milk, for instance, is its subtle aura of danger. Long before the assassination threats, crudely drawn on notepaper, show up the movie has made it clear that there is a deep psychological element to being gay that outsiders may never understand or, indeed, have thought about – fear.

It’s not just the fear of outing (something, by the way, that Harvey Milk wasn’t opposed to as long as it served the larger cause). It is the fear of violence, that one day out of the blue someone who doesn’t know you but doesn’t approve of your sexuality might be moved to violence by your mere existence. They might beat you, maim you, sexually assault you, even kill you. And when you are found or your remains are found or your disappearance is reported, nobody will care because the general feeling might be that you simply got what was coming to you.

The police will ignore your death, your family will try to forget it, and you will be lucky if you end up as a footnote on the crime beat in the local newspaper… and you’re convinced all of this is just as it should be because the people whom you love the most in the world, your friends and family, think there is something wrong about you. You lived, you breathed, you loved, you hated, you feared – but it can all be taken away at any moment and then it will be as though you never existed.

Although that sense of danger comes to the fore explicitly only a few times in the movie (the scene at the rally before Senator Briggs shows up is particularly great, bringing to my mind the feeling I got during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago after he won the election, only magnified), the threat is ever present and the movie is framed to reflect that knowledge.

The other thing about Milk is that it’s not a movie that is afraid to show the political side of idealism. The side that wades into the muck and gets the job done. Sure, there are protest marches and riots and free love and young idealists working in the streets to keep their dream alive aplenty… but as Milk constantly reminds his bete noire Dan White (Josh Brolin), it’s political alliances that makes the world go around.

Throughout the movie, Harvey Milk is an unlikely hero and it has little to do with his homosexuality – it’s because Milk is the story of a revolutionary and he’s the last person in any room you’d tag as such. Not only does he not look the part, he is willing to adapt and conform to achieve his ends, for one thing, and will engage with whoever it takes to get his ideas traction. When he stands up to speak, he lacks the stage presence of natural orators that makes the audience feel immediately at ease – instead, he grows into his persona, expanding from a shy, diffident man with a sort of quavery voice to a man who can stop a riot in its tracks armed with nothing more than a megaphone. And yet, this is the same man who often began his speeches by vocalizing the homophobes’ greatest fear: “I’m here to recruit you”; whose eloquence demanded nothing short of equality when “man’s law and God’s law” in San Francisco was unprepared to grant anything of the kind.

These are the nuances which give Milk its punch.

There is a scene towards the end of the movie, where he has just finished making a series of crude threats to Mayor Mascone (Victor Garber) regarding Dan White, when Mascone impassively remarks upon Milk’s resemblance at that moment to other powerful – and corrupt – politicians. Milk gives him his trademark shy grin and says, “A homosexual with power… that’s scary!”

His opponents definitely believed so, but Milk shows you different.

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