The filmmakers behind Milk couldn't have asked for better timing for their release. A tightly composed tale of Harvey Milk's contribution to the gay movement (he was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S.), Milk portrays the early and explosive days of grassroots activism for homosexual rights on the streets of San Francisco. Thirty years later, the movement is taking to the streets again in California, protesting the recently passed Proposition 8, which amends the state Constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
The film is more of an homage and biopic than a political call to arms, but certainly it will be embraced as a galvanizing piece of agit-prop by the already incensed gay community. Its openly gay filmmakers, including director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, undoubtedly mean it to be more than just popcorn escapism.
The film follows Milk (Sean Penn) from his early '70s arrival in San Francisco, where he set up shop (literally: a camera shop) in the city's Castro District, which quickly became a haven to which homosexuals migrated. Gays owned the shops, rented the apartments, and lived peacefully. But the police hated them, and occasionally got abusive. Milk quickly became the organizing voice ("the mayor of Castro Street") who could funnel his community's anger into activism. Following the 1977 repeal of gay rights legislation in Florida (which singer Anita Bryant famously campaigned for), there were riots in the Castro district. Milk got up with a megaphone and put a positive spin on it, speaking with Obama-esque language of hope. "We've gotta give hope to gay teenagers across America!"
The film efficiently documents Milk's political ascendancy, mounting numerous failed campaigns before finally winning the post of city supervisor in 1977, on a coalition of union support, women, seniors, gays and minority voters. An interesting and crucial section of the film concerns the subsequent battle over California's Proposition 6 in 1978, which would ban gays from teaching in public schools. These sceneswhich, like the film at large, skillfully employ the use of archival footageplay like some sort of weird déjà vu, given the rhetoric that accompanied this fall's vicious fight over Prop 8 (with conservatives arguing that the failure of Prop 8 would result in homosexuality being taught in public schools). Milk's side was victorious in the fight against Prop 6, which is what ultimately led to his untimely demise. Shortly after the homosexuals' victory in the November 1978 elections, Milk was shot to death by a disturbed fellow politician, Dan White (Josh Brolin).
We know from the film's outset that Milk is a doomed figure. The film opens with Milk recording an "only in the event of my death by assassination" message in which he admits the very real possibility that he will be targeted for his gay activism. "In San Francisco, we have broken the dam of major prejudice in this country," we hear him say, followed by archival footage of Dianne Feinstein (then head of San Francisco's board of supervisors) announcing on November 27, 1978 that "Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed."