What price Milk?

On Nov. 7, 1978, Californians voted overwhelming against an absurd right-wing religious extremist-supported bill that would have banned gays from teaching in public schools and would have removed known homosexuals and their supporters from public office posts.

Proposition 6, as it was called, might have succeeded if not for the efforts of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who had a year earlier become the first openly gay man elected to a major U.S. office. Twenty days after Prop 6 went down in flames, Milk was shot dead along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by a disgruntled former supervisor.

It's been 30 years since Milk became a figurehead for the homosexual rights movement or, as it really should be seen, the universal civil rights movement. As if to spite our basic assumption that we learn from our history, that the past three decades were actually marked by positive sociological advancement, the Mormon Church and others sponsored a bill called Proposition 8 in California that sought to overturn a recent state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage by now banning it in the state Constitution. They succeeded with 52.1 percent of the vote. (Michigan banned gay marriage and civil unions in 2004.) The Supreme Court is again involved, and it seems very possible that Prop 8 will receive a legal smackdown, but the fact remains that Milk's vision of basic human rights for all is still nothing but a dream in this country.

Milk, starring Sean Penn as the activist, is director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's effort to remind everyone who Milk was, how he changed the face of the gay rights movement, and, of course, to help us realize how far we haven't come since Prop 6.

"The first time I heard his name — which is quite an interesting name, Harvey Milk — was when he was shot," Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting) says. Milk, at the time, had not become a national figure, even though papers around the country did report on his momentous election. "I was in a car driving cross-country, and it was sort of the whole story told in a news flash. 'The mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, was shot by a city supervisor who also shot another supervisor who was an openly gay man.' All of a sudden, you had this intrigue. One supervisor shoots the mayor, then another supervisor — were they lovers?"

Milk and his assassin, Dan White, were not. They were rivals on the Board of Supervisors, and White, a troubled ex-cop and ex-firefighter, had recently resigned only to, days later, ask to be reinstated. Milk pressed Moscone to refuse and appoint a replacement, and so White, on Nov. 27, 1978, climbed through a City Hall window to avoid the metal detectors and shot and killed Moscone and Milk, finishing both off with execution-style shots to the head. White was convicted of manslaughter, not first-degree murder, and sentenced to seven years for the double killings — thanks in part to the incredible "Twinkie Defense," which argued his junk-food addiction had left him depressed and incapable of premeditated actions.

"I found out about him about 10 years later," Black, who's openly gay, explains, sitting next to Van Sant in a Beverly Hills Four Seasons suite. "But by then, I got the legend of Harvey Milk. I had a theater director up in the Bay Area while I was apprenticing up there. He told me the story, but most notably he was telling the story of an out gay guy. For a lot of the kids in the internship program, it was something they had never heard of. We were all 13 or 14."

"Was he gay?" Van Sant interrupts, already confident he knows the answer.

"Oh, yeah," Black replies, laughing. "I heard the story first then, and I freaked out like, 'Oh, crap, does he know about me? Why's he calling me out? Why's he telling me this story?' But when I went home, I realized it was so inspirational that there was an out gay guy like that who was celebrated by his city."

Black later watched the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and broke down into tears when he realized Milk's message was not only that Black and kids like him were OK, but that they could do great things. Like tell the big-screen story of a man who has been called "the gay Martin Luther King Jr." He spent years pursuing the project, developing and writing it on his own from interviews with those close to Milk, before Van Sant got ahold of the script. He had spent a decade trying to find a way to tell Milk's story himself, so Black had found the ideal collaborator.

"One of the reasons [to tell the story] is to popularize the guy," Van Sant says. "The documentary was always a documentary, and, for a large part of the population, documentaries aren't very popular. And also, the sentimentality of the personal sides of the story are easier to get at in a fictional structure."

"You want to get into his personal world," Black adds. "You don't want to lionize the man, but show who he was as a human being. There's no way to do that documentary; the footage doesn't exist. A lot of the people who were close to [Milk] are sadly gone too."

Many have been angered because Milk wasn't released before the Nov. 4 election, when its impact could've made the biggest difference in California, Florida and Arizona — all of which succeeded in banning gay marriage. Arkansas even managed to vote in a ban on homosexual adoption. The filmmakers stay political in discussing the subject, but it's as if they're choosing their words carefully.

"It would have been great to see it come out before [the election] so it would have been able to affect ... Prop 8 in California," Van Sant says. "In order to do that, [though], we would've needed a longer run-up than we had." Questions arose whether or not the movie would end up overpoliticized, or even get lost amid the election coverage; could its impact be blunted by these forces, and the message be overlooked? In the end, "We opted for staying out of the fray, which is not what Harvey would've done."

Whether or not Milk could've made a difference is a moot point now, though it's highly unlikely a niche "gay movie" — which probably wouldn't have appealed to the large number of Mexican- and African-Americans who voted for Prop 8 — could've earned the cause the needed percentage points for victory.

It's hard to believe that 30 years ago states were trying to ban homosexuals from even working, but has so little progress been made since then? "Well, certain things have changed," Black corrects. "But what we're fighting for, the goal line, has changed. We're asking for more, we're asking for equal. In the '70s, we just wanted to keep the things we had."

Milk is showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Cole Haddon is film writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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