Movie Review: Milk

By Matthew Huntley

December 8, 2008

That doesn't look like Milk in those glasses.

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I wish I could have met Harvey Milk. What an inspirational man he was, tirelessly fighting for the civil rights of homosexuals and other minorities. In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America, and now thanks to Gus Van Sant's Milk, his legacy will be known to a whole new generation. Milk, as he's portrayed in Van Sant's new film, asked the government to let people be themselves and not be judged for it or discriminated against. When you think about it, his wishes were simple and pragmatic.

As the film opens, Van Sant shows us disheartening file photos and news footage of gay bars being raided by police. Homosexual men are piled into police cars and taken off to jail. Shortly thereafter, we learn about the assassination of two men: Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). In 1978, before his assassination, Milk records his memoirs onto an audio tape, foreshadowing his death, and the film heads into flashback.

The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black concentrates mostly on Milk's political career and his relationships around it. It keeps the romanticism of the era at bay and doesn't bother to go into Milk's formative years. In 1970, on the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk meets Scott Smith (James Franco, very effective) in the subway and bluntly asks him to help celebrate his birthday. The two spend the night together and fall in love. Seeking change and a lifestyle outside corporate America, they move to San Francisco, where Milk opens Castro Camera in a growing gay neighborhood, appropriately known as "The Castro."


After encountering prejudice, Milk strives to make a difference in the way gay people are treated. He walks out into the neighborhood with a blow horn and declares his candidacy for city supervisor. Many are surprised and few expect a homosexual man to win a public election, but Milk gains momentum and popularity, and not just from gay men and lesbians, but also from straight people and business owners who realize having the gay community on their side can be beneficial.

After two failed attempts, Milk is finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His greatest victory would be a city ordinance that prevents people from being fired from their jobs on the basis of sexual orientation. Milk also combated Anita Bryant, the conservative Southern Baptist who upheld her strong anti-gay views and successfully repealed a local ordinance in Florida that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (it was later overturned in 1998).

Milk, ostentatious yet calm, used Bryant's outspoken anti-gay remarks as excuses for boycotts and marches against homophobia. In fact, he would tell masses that Anita Bryant helped unify the people of San Francisco. His famous line, "I'm Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you," became associated with taking action against injustice. We witness Milk never being too afraid to speak up, even upon receiving death threats. He'd stick such notes to his refrigerator as a reminder that he was making people notice what he was doing.

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