By: Margarita Beth G. Morales
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” —Harvey Milk
Released on February 4 2008, Milk is an academy award winning film that recounts the life of Harvey Milk, the first gay individual to gain a seat in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Being a gay rights activist, Milk leaves a legacy as he paves the way to homosexual civil rights.Contents in this paper seek to incorporate the fundamental notions under queer theories into the contribution of the gay revolution in Gus Van Sant’s Milk.
The film begins by showing true to life clips of policemen attacking gay communities. This is then followed by an actual footage of Dianne Feinstein, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors announcing the assassination of San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone and elected supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). After, the film fades in to Milk sitting at a kitchen, recording a lengthy message to be unveiled on the day of his death, serving as the film’s narrative foundation.
Set on the 70s, Milk is portrayed as a sweet, strong-willed closet gay. On his 40th birthday, Milk picks up a younger man, Scott Smith (James Franco) on the New York subway and spark the beginning of their romance. The two then decide to hop on their journey by moving and opening up a camera shop in Eureka Valley, San Francisco which later on turned to be “The Castro”, a popular landmark of gay culture.
Having encountered unfair backlash from the oppressive and homophobic catholic environment, Milk becomes a gay rights activist and community leader. In the long run, he befriends Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and mentors numerous closeted individuals who frequently hang out at his camera shop.
Milk then runs as a city supervisor with a platform that seeks to empower gay rights but loses twice in 1973. This did not stop him from running for the California State Assembly in 1976 but again, the campaign turns out to be unsuccessful. Smith, being Milk’s lover and campaign manager, grows tired of his commitment to politics, prompting him to leave the relationship. At this point, Milk meets Jack Lira, who becomes his partner but also like Smith, gets fed up by his devotion to activism and hangs himself eventually in the story.
After three defeats, Milk continues to thrive and finally wins a spot in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He makes history by being the first gay supervisor to be seated into office in California. Readings also show that Milk was also one of the first openly homosexuals elected in America (Fitzsimons, 2018).
As he works on his term, Milk faces a difficult working relationship with Dan White (Josh Brolin), a believer of orthodox social issues. White asks for Milk’s help in some of his projects in hopes that he would help Milk for his. But because of Milk’s fidelity to his principles, he refuses to come to his aid.
Later on, John Briggs, a conservative legislator, supports a petition that attempts to ban homosexuals from working in academic institutions, a project headed by Anita Bryan, a singer and also a political activist. The declaration of this appeal frustrates the gay community and causes Milk to oppose.
After some time, White demands for a raise in his salary but was turned down. This evokes him to resign from the board. He later on changes his mind and asks Mayor Moscone for his approval but rejects his appeal. Furious, White shoots Moscone and comes face to face with Milk where he also shoots him, leaving both with lethal shots.
The film ends by showing an assembly of numerous people, walking on the streets holding out candles in memory of Harvey Milk. It is reported that around 40,000 locals participated in the said vigil (Selby, 2015). This is followed by a series of photos showing actual characters and descriptions of their existence after the film.
In “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984) Gayle Rubin argues that sex is utilized as a means of establishing oppression and supremacy in today’s world. She adds that society has manifested an intrinsic caste system which gives heavy importance to heterosexuals, leaving homosexuals at the lower part of the “erotic pyramid”. This explains how homosexuals are frowned upon and are considered a shame because of the codes and norms embedded today.
Inequality being one of the general themes of the film, combines these concepts into a motion picture that portrays issues experienced by gays and lesbians. Given that the film is a true story, it shows how Harvey Milk and the gay community worked their way into breaking these sexual stratifications.
The rejection towards homosexuality could be greatly seen in early parts of the film. One would show Mr. McConnely, a bar owner who immediately wipes his hand with a handkerchief after shaking hands with Milk (00:10:26). Implying that it is unclean to interact or even touch gays. He then suggests Milk to stop his business before the police finds out about his sexual identity, hinting that McConnely is a discriminative homophobe with religious ideals.
Smelik (1998), who tackles her ideas in Gay and Lesbian Criticism states that homosexuals in the big screen are always seen to be provoked and mocked. A clear explanation why Milk decides to run for public office after being disapproved by people due to his sexuality and intimate relationships. Given that the film is set in a time that sparks the revolution of gays and lesbians, individuals with uptight social and religious beliefs are against homosexuals because of the fact that everything is considered a disgrace. Thus, showing parts where Milk and his friends gather and express themselves privately, hiding from the eyes of judgement.
Another significant concept that Smelik (1998) expounds would be the existence of stereotypes and norms manifested in queer cinema. One, how homosexual characters in the story will never be considered real men or women. An issue seen in the political strands of the film. Where the opposition seeks to put an end to homosexuality. The presence of Anita Bryan, Dan White and John Briggs have added force to the pre existing issues faced.
Arrests and killings made by police as they swarm Castro street evidently show that the detentions made are not related to legal or criminal offenses but are a result of their opposition towards homosexuality. Excuses given by police such as blocking of sideways and overcrowding of areas are clear indication of power tripping.
Smelik’s (1998) effort to prove that homosexuality is a cultural and social construct is greatly seen in the background of the film’s characters. Specifically, Milk, Smith and the community built around them, one being The Castro and the ease it gives to the diverse gay community.
Going back to Rubin (1984), she adds how society limits the sole purpose of sexuality to procreation. She claims that society perceives good sexuality as marital, heterosexual or monogamous. A sexuality that breaks this code is considered bad or abnormal. This one of the many reasons the opposition and the whole conservative community look down on homosexuals in the film—their incapability to bear a child. A strong belief that is repeated over and over again in multiple parts of the film. A scene would even show Milk conversing with White in a witty exchange of words.
Dan White: Society can’t exist without the family.
Harvey Milk: We’re not against that.
Dan White: Can two men reproduce
Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we’re trying
Also, in Anita Bryan’s introductory scene (00:34:58) which features her speech about homosexuality, she claims that the existence of gays and lesbians would do nothing but break the family unit. She goes on by saying that a homosexual, regardless of personality is evil and should never be tolerated. When asked why she refuses to give homosexuals their civil rights, she answers by saying “you see, if homosexuals are allowed their rights, then so would prostitutes, or thieves or anyone else. I put it in a category of morality”. Her answer goes back to Rubin’s (1998) idea of a sexual caste system that arranges homosexuals lower than reproductive heterosexuals.
“You are not sick, you are not wrong, and God does not hate you” a concerned Milk tells an anonymous caller from Minnesota who says he will attempt to kill himself. When asked why, he answers that his parents will take him to a hospital to fix him. An attestation that the person over the phone is gay and has a family who perceives being gay as a disease, something to be diagnosed. This particular scene gives rise to another circumstance in the film.
More than just heterosexism, Rubin (1984) adds the marginalized system of homosexuals in the field of their professions. An obvious issue that could be seen in the film when a city ordinance was proposed to ban gays and lesbians from working for such professions in order to “save” children from homosexuality. Implying that it is a dishonor that should not be tolerated and exposed to the youth.
Doty (1998) explains how sexuality is challenged, scrutinized, and complicated in different areas of film. She also adds how established codes of sexuality are brought to cinema. Given the situation of the film, the audience gets to see how these real life events of Harvey Milk are bought to the big screen. The public eye’s examination of the gay community has made an unjust exploration towards Milk and the minority.
Amidst all the inequality and the struggles that are shown in the biographical film and the real life of Harvey Milk, he strongly breaks the sexual stratification that was rooted in the government, religion and society. Gus Van Sant’s method of narration captured the emotions of the audience, whether queer or not into Milk’s cry for freedom and equality. He portrays a colorful narrative that digs deep into the core of the film’s hero.
With the idea of hierarchy and discrimination under these queer theories, Milk travels far and long to erase the idea of dominance to create a comfortable and safe world where gays could live a life equal, fair, and in the same level as everybody else. Running for a place in public office after losing thrice says a lot about his character and the message he wants to send out. The film’s recreation of Milk’s campaign, rallies and activism has created an inevitable statement, that homosexuals do have place in the world and he is one of the people who made this possible.
The exceptional use of archival footage and camera schemes have added originality and style to the film’s narrative. Giving utmost strength to its real-life characters and the actors’ portrayal of them.
More than just a biographical film that showcases a real-life story, Milk presents its character with depth, his evolution as a middle aged-hippie turned icon of hope has given the audience a story to look forward to. A character not only remembered for his true to life legacy but also his cinematic impact to the gay community. Milk is many things and truthfully it flourishes at all of it.
“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” —Harvey Milk
Doty, A. (1998). Queer Theory. In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (pp. 148-152). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fitzsimons, T. (2018, November 27). Forty years after his death, Harvey Milk’s legacy still lives on. Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/forty-years-after-his-death-harvey-milk-s-legacy-still-n940356
Rubin, G. 1984. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In: Rubin, G. Deviations. Duke University Press: USA.
Selby, J. (2015, May 22). Harvey Milk is still history’s most influential gay activist 37 years after his murder. Retrieved March 2, 2019, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/why-harvey-milk-is-still-the-most-influential-lgbt-activists-36-years-after-his-murder-9413006.html
Smelik, Anneke. (1998). Gay and Lesbian Film Criticism.