Rarely do I attend films at the cinema anymore. It takes something that captures my interest and attention that will draw me to the screen.
It has been 30 years since Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was murdered alongside Mayor George Moscone. This is a story that was crying to be told on screen. The late author Randy Shilts wrote an excellent biography of Milk probing into his childhood and life before and through his relocation to San Francisco. There was an opera performed based on the political life of Milk, considering that one of his passions was the opera.
This past weekend, a new biopic by filmmaker Gus Van Sant based on the political life of Harvey Milk opened in limited release. I was a part of a group from the Minneapolis Movie Bears that viewed the film on Tuesday. There were 82 people amongst the group to watch history captured on film. A few watched the film in advance over the weekend, but felt compelled to share the experience with the larger group.
When I first thought about the film Milk, I thought of films that impact certain groups of people with the telling of their stories. When I think of the Apartheid struggle in South Africa, I point to Sir Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, the story of the friendship between martyred activist Steven Biko and journalist Donald Woods. When I think of the holocaust during World War II, I consider Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Of course, when I want a different point-of-view of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X comes to mind.
Beyond all of this, this is a personal story. I remember the murders as a 14-year-old overweight closeted boy. I happened to be sick from school and had my stereo set to a news station when now-U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein announced what happened at San Francisco City Hall. It impacted me not only as someone with Bay Area roots, but as a person with a life that could not be acknowledged at any cost.
One of Milk’s speeches talked about a letter he received from a 16-year-old boy from Altoona, Pennsylvania who struggled with his sexual orientation as a teenager. Milk made the point that he was in fighting for all of the GLBT community’s rights so teenagers such as that boy from Altoona could live openly and free from harm and discrimination. That also spoke to me, then a 14-year-old chubby boy from Reseda, California with the knowledge that there was no place safe or available for other gay teens to go to be free in the San Fernando Valley, let alone the entire Los Angeles Basin, in 1978.
More apropos was Milk’s famous quote that rang true at the time of his murder: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door!” Ten years later, I began kicking my door down. Yet, today, even in the Bear community, there are still a few closet doors that are heavily guarded. Sadly, one cannot force the destruction of a closet door if the person inside of it wishes not to open it. This is indeed a sad commentary considering the battles our community have gone through this year alone.
However, Milk’s life and work influenced me even deeper. When I finished my undergraduate study in 1993, I left my university the president of the campus GLBT student group. Two years later, I dove into the Bear community by starting up Gen-X Bears. Even with my work on this magazine, Milk’s legacy and impact still drives what I do every day for my people. Not just for the Bear community, but for every GLBT person I meet or connect with.
As for the film, my thoughts about it echo some of the things I read/heard recently about it. Bobaloo and Buck Hakes of “The Buck and Bobaloo Show” podcast were right about how Sean Penn "disappears" into a role. Though there were some physical features that were distinctively Penn's, he got Milk's voice, energy, emotions and everything else down. Penn was indeed "Glimpy Milsch" (that was Milk’s nickname on Long Island as a child).
It seems a bit unfair that I have read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts - God knows how many times - and watched the documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk once...maybe twice on videotape. It's also hard to watch the film without recognizing the "characters" as I met some of them along the way. Cleve Jones and Tom Ammiano, for example. If you watch carefully, you will see the newest member of the California State Assembly, representing the 13th Assembly District, on screen as he stood next to Milk/Penn in the scene at the Briggs rally in front of City Hall.
In all, the film was fantastic. It certainly induced plenty of emotions throughout. It wasn’t as freaky as Van Sant's previous films (My Own Private Idaho comes to mind), but, then again, I'm not a film reviewer. I'm a writer with a history degree that had done research on various aspects of Milk's life and political career. The film completed the circle for me.