Film Review: Milk

by Jun 26, 2009All Articles

Film Review by Colin Wilson,  (Socialist Review)

Director Gus Van Sant

Harvey Milk, one of the first out gay people elected to public office in the US, arrived in San Francisco aged 42. Having left behind a respectable life as a New York insurance salesman, Milk grew his hair long, joined the city’s rapidly growing gay population, and defied both the Democrat and gay establishments by running for the city government position of supervisor.

On his third attempt – after buying a suit, cutting his hair and giving up dope – Milk won. He had the support of LGBT people, but also elderly people and trade unionists such as firefighters and teamsters. He initially won union backing by campaigning in gay bars against anti-union Coors beer. Representing ordinary people and small businesses, he stood for cheaper childcare, free public transport and more democratic controls of the police – who habitually beat up LGBT people.

Milk played a leading role in defeating Proposition 6, which aimed to stop gay men teaching in California schools. But only weeks after this victory he was shot dead by Dan White, a working class Irish-American ex-cop, who had himself recently resigned as supervisor.

Tens of thousands marched from the gay Castro district to City Hall in a candlelit vigil. At White’s trial a white suburban jury sentenced him to the minimum term of imprisonment. Thousands of LGBT people rioted at City Hall, breaking windows and setting police cars on fire; cops trashed a gay bar and beat people in it at random.

Gus Van Sant’s Milk tells this story faithfully. The film opens with moving recreations of the police raids on gay bars that went on throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Scenes where characters distribute leaflets from a crowded flat or take part in an angry demo ring absolutely true. Sean Penn is superb in the title role, and the involvement of many of Milk’s friends and associates has ensured accuracy.

Nor does the film portray Milk as a saint. Once elected he’s shown taking part in unprincipled horse-trading within the city government. To raise his profile he shamelessly launches a populist campaign against dog waste in public places. He goes from leading people in marches to manipulating them, deliberately arriving at City Hall at just the moment when he can benefit from an angry protest while winding it down.

This inspiring film recreates a largely forgotten era of US radicalism and shows how grassroots LGBT campaigns started a fight which still continues. I have one minor gripe – the ending. No compromise is possible here – you either finish with a candle lit vigil or a riot. Van Sant ends his film with the vigil, only mentioning the riot in onscreen text that explains what happened after Milk’s death. The histories of gay anger and police brutality aren’t shown on the screen.

The parallels between Milk’s time and our own are striking. In November a homophobic proposition outlawing same-sex marriage was passed in California. That decision led within weeks to protests of over a hundred thousand people across the US. Many of these people were inspired by Obama’s campaign message of change and hope – echoed in Milk’s closing words of the film, “You gotta give ’em hope.”

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