Whole Milk - Never Blend In
[opens nationwide November 26]
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I went to see a pre-screening of Milk, the new feature film about Harvey Milk's life, with Sean Penn in the lead role. The movie was fantastic. I was in a theater full of Philadelphian queer activists and allies who represented all generations of our movement. There was the lesbian who helped found Giovanni's Room (our still running fabulous gay bookstore), many of our key political figures, AIDS activists who have been fighting for decades, fired-up youth, people of color, transmen and transwomen. That set the perfect scene for the movie itself-- a celebration of the power of gay communities at their best.
I started crying within the first two minutes of the film. The opening scenes (I'm not giving anything away here) show 1950s era bar raids-- police pushing hapless gay men into paddy wagons; the look of fear and resignation among the gays; and a wonderful moment when one angry queen throws a drink at the camera (go Sister!). Director Gus Van Sant from the very opening paints a picture of the tremendous gains we have made in queer organizing since that time, while also ironically noting that we are fighting many of the same battles of the 1970s. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and the movie is a remarkable reminder of what has often been forgotten by our gay movement.
It seems almost odd that this film could come out at this time. The ongoing battle against Proposition 8 so mirrors one of the major dramas of the film: Milk's spearheading the efforts against the infamous Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6), which sought to ban gay teachers and their allies. Watching all of the protest, marches, and advocacy was a very spooky deja vu for me. Perhaps the most telling example of this deja vu is a marvelous moment when Supervisor Tom Ammiano, playing himself (as a teacher who confronts Briggs), shouts "you're trying to take away my job!" But it is spooky to see that Ammiano's hair is gray, and that he has not been made up to look 20something. He is the adult version of himself transported by time machine back to the Briggs Demonstration. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's bittersweet, almost, to see that the organizing against the Briggs Initiative succeeds-- it makes a critical viewer wonder what we are doing wrong nowadays.
Delightful moments include the wonderful portrayal of Cleve Jones (of AIDS Quilt fame) by Emile Hirsch. Hirsch brings out the sweet combination of Cleve's youthful bravado, ageism, and love for elders. When Milk first attempts to get Cleve to join in the gay liberation battle, Jones calls him "Old Man" and laughs in his face. But by the end, you can see the beautiful mentorship between Milk and Jones... and you can see the ways that Milk's lessons would live on in Jones' future organizing. It's all there.
Penn as Harvey Milk is really incredible. Milk protégée Anne Kronenberg reported many a double-take during the filming-- they just look so much alike! And Penn also brings out the wonderful paradoxes in Milk's behavior-- the flirtatiousness, the naiveté, the seriousness, the genius, and the bullying. And Penn plays Milk as I always had imagined him-- a mensch on a mission. There is such a sense of self-awareness and destiny. It's also possible from viewing Penn's performance to see what it means to be a leader-- the commitment that is required, the cost to relationships and family, and the charisma and charm that is required to generate a Tribe.
And to me the main story of the movie is the power of Tribe-building. Harvey does it with genius-- including all of the folks who, until the 1970s, had largely been outside political power networks. In the film, we see Milk's deft ability to build a coalition of progressive people-- gays, people of color, elders, union rank-and-file, youth, and others. Though he was a gay leader, he was far greater than that. As he says, he is there to lead "all the people".
The portrayal of the dramatic events leading up to Milk and Moscone's assassination is compelling and direct. I had hoped for a complex portrayal of Dan White (the assassin) by Josh Brolin, and I think he did a not bad job. We get a little picture into his life: the pressures, the conservative background, the police influence. In the end, the senseless assassinations seem unavoidable.
I've seem the documentary "Times of Harvey Milk" numerous times in my life, and there were moments when I felt transported back to that telling of the story. Both films are beautiful and different-- I recommend seeing the documentary before the movie to give you some background that isn't available in the feature. Notably, Van Sant omits the part of the story that occurs after Milk's assassination-- the trial and the dramatic White Night Riot. I was glad that my friend Micah had told me this ahead of time-- so I wasn't disappointed to miss the drama of police cars burning in the night. But I think Van Sant (and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black) were smart to omit the post-Milk trial and tribulation-- because really this story is focused on Harvey-- and when he is murdered, a new story begins.