It’s Here, It’s Queer

sarris milk It’s Here, It’s QueerMilk
Running time 128 minutes
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Alison Pill

Gus Van Sant’s Milk, from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly as timely as ever, inasmuch as amid all the euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, the passage of anti-gay-marriage propositions in three states has struck a sour note, particularly in California, a state that Senator Obama carried easily, which means that many Obama voters, and probably a fair number of churchgoing Hispanics and African-Americans, voted for Proposition 8. Ironically, one of the high points of Milk is Harvey Milk’s exultation over the defeat in California on Nov. 7, 1978, of Proposition 6, seeking to ban gays from teaching in California public schools, and to remove homosexuals and their supporters from their jobs. Sean Penn and an exemplary ensemble bring Milk’s political and sexual adventures to vibrant life on the screen. Mr. Van Sant has virtually pioneered the insertion of gay themes into the movie mainstream with grace and sophistication. Hence, even though Rob Epstein’s excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1984, there is still almost a generation of young people who are completely unfamiliar with the Harvey Milk (1930-1978) story.

I assume that young people, straight and gay alike, are committed to the civil rights of gays, as they reportedly were for the candidacy of Barack Obama. Perhaps I am wrong. Mr. Black’s screenplay, on which he labored for years, picks up Harvey Milk’s life at the point eight years before his assassination when he has finally decided at the age of 40 to come out of the closet to take up the struggle for gay rights. Previously, when he was 16, Milk played junior varsity football at the Bay Shore (N.Y.) high school from which he graduated in 1947. After graduating from State University (SUNY) at Albany with a degree in mathematics, he joined the U.S. Navy, from which he was honorably discharged in 1955. He taught high school from 1958 to 1963, after which he began a new career with the Wall Street firm of Bache and Co. Then came a period of drifting from one career to another in both New York and San Francisco. The movie gets going when he meets a new lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), who is reluctant at first to start a relationship with the fortyish Milk. This bit of gay street wisdom is unobtrusively introduced, and then discreetly dropped during the rest of the film.

Milk and Smith return to San Francisco to open the Castro Camera Shop, which quickly becomes a gay hangout and a locus for political agitation. Milk begins organizing gay boycotts in support of other groups, starting with the Teamsters and their campaign against Coors Beer. In 1973 Milk runs in his district for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and loses. He loses again in 1975, but contributes to the winning mayoral election of the gay-friendly George Moscone.

In 1976 he loses a State Assembly election, but then in 1977, with a new district election system in play, Milk finally wins a supervisor seat for District 5, which takes in the Castro. He thus becomes the first openly gay man ever elected to public office in America. He owes his victory in large part to a new campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), an avowed lesbian. There is a delicious scene in which Kronenberg stares down a phalanx of Milk’s disapproving gay supporters by asking them sweetly if they are afraid of a girl.

Meanwhile, Milk has broken with his lover, Scott Smith, and taken up with a new nonpolitical lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), who later hangs himself because Milk has neglected him in order to fulfill his campaign obligations. Along the way in his political dealings, Milk incurs the enmity of Dan White, an Irish-Catholic ex-fireman supervisor from another district. On Nov. 27, 1978, White shoots Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk to death. This prompts 30,000 Milk supporters to march to City Hall in a peaceful candlelight demonstration.

As it happens, Milk died a few years before the AIDS epidemic would take the lives of many of his most fervent supporters. On Aug. 5, the California Senate split along party lines in approving the Harvey Milk Day bill, which is due to be considered by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. So Milk’s crusade continues, and the eloquent film bearing his name leads the charge.

asarris@observer.com