Paul Burston revisits milestones in gay cinema as the Oscar-nominated Milk hits our screens.
Imagine, if you can, that an openly gay candidate had become Mayor of London. Imagine, too, how black men and women in America must be feeling now with Barack Obama about to enter the White House. That’s what Harvey Milk represented to the gay men and women of America in the late 1970s.
Milk was an American hero. The first openly gay man to hold public office as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and nicknamed ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’, Milk stood up for gay rights in America at a time when religious bigotry was on the rise and homosexuals were commonly referred to as ‘perverts’ and ‘child molesters’ by the likes of John Briggs, Anita Bryant and fellow supporters of the ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. Milk encouraged gay men and women to stand up and be counted, to boycott anti-gay businesses and above all to get out there and vote. Eventually, he even defeated Bryant and the Briggs Initiative, also known as Proposition 6, which would have outlawed gay men and women from teaching in America’s schools.
Through his political actions, Milk changed the face of gay America. Sadly, Milk served just 11 months as City Supervisor. In November 1978, he was gunned down by fellow supervisor Dan White. Milk had always said that he wouldn’t live to 50 – he was 48 when he died. Charged with two cases of first degree murder, White served a mere four-year sentence for manslaughter after pleading that his crime was as a result of eating too much junk food. He committed suicide shortly afterwards. When the verdict was announced, there were riots. Thirty thousand people blocked the streets of San Francisco in a candle-lit procession stretching for miles.
In 1985, shortly after I moved to London, I saw the Robert Epstein documentary The Times of Harvey Milk at the Everyman Cinema. I left the cinema a changed man. I was shocked, grief-stricken and very, very angry. I’d never heard of Harvey Milk until that day but his story inspired me. It politicised me. Then Aids came along and that was it. I became a gay activist, chaining myself to railings, blocking traffic, spending countless hours in cells. And attending funerals. Lots and lots of funerals. In common with many gay men of my generation, I watched lots of friends die. After a while the funerals merged into one, they were so frequent.
Few modern gay films have touched me the way The Times of Harvey Milk did. There were the films of Derek Jarman, of course – angry, elegiac, experimental and often giving a direct voice to the demands of gay activists. There was Parting Glances, which was the first crossover feature film to deal directly with the Aids crisis. There was Longtime Companion. There was Philadelphia, which seemed to be made for straight audiences who didn’t mind watching a gay man die but couldn’t bear to see him being kissed or showing his lover any physical affection. And there was Brokeback Mountain, which probably broke more barriers than any gay film in living memory, starring as it did two hot young Hollywood actors with huge mainstream appeal playing gay characters convincingly and without a hint of embarrassment.
Now there’s Gus Van Sant’s biopic, Milk. It’s an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy film, with a stunning performance from Sean Penn and an equally strong supporting turn from James Franco as his lover. I watched it and I wept. I wept buckets. And not just for Harvey Milk, but for all the candlelit vigils and all the gay men who’ve died since, either through Aids or due to the steady tide of homophobic violence which took the life of Matthew Shepherd in America and those of Jody Dobrowski, David Morley and Michael Causer in the UK. In fact, I had to wait in the screening room until well after the film had ended, I was such a mess.
Is this a recommendation? God, yes. See this movie. Remember Harvey Milk. Remember his message of hope. Milk knew he was a target for assassination. He even left a tape to be played in the event of his death. Speaking of gay teenagers around the country, he said: “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the disabled will give up… It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”
To date, no openly gay man has risen to such a position of political power in America as Harvey Milk did. This film is a reminder that gay rights aren’t simply given to us. They are won. And they can just as easily be taken away. Just ask our friends in California. In fact, there’s even speculation that had Milk come out earlier, Proposition 8 to outlaw gay marriage might not have been passed. That’s a lot to ask of a movie. But Milk is no ordinary movie, just as Harvey Milk was no ordinary man.
Milk opens on Feb 19.