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Posted By Nicole Kurth, Lake Superior State University, Thursday, October 15, 2015

Inclusion & Equity Committee Film Review Series Presents: “MILK”

By: Nicole Kurth | Lake Superior State University



In 2008, a film directed by Gus Van Sant simply titled: MILK, debuted in the heart of San Francisco at the historic Castro Theatre. The façade was recently restored for the making of the film as part of the transformation the area underwent to accurately represent the area as it was in the 1970s. The film’s release was also bound to the 2008 California state referendum on gay marriage, known widely as Prop 8, two weeks before voters went to the polls to cast their vote. You may be asking yourself, “Why I am I reading a review on a movie that is seven years old?” The answer is because this film is still relevant today as the fight continues against LGBT injustices in this country and around the world. When LGBT people no longer feel scared to be themselves or “come out” and all the hoopla over gay and straight is no longer a dividing wall, this will all be just another chapter in our nation’s history books. LGBT people gained some equilibrium on the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling that Same-Sex Marriage is a nationwide right, but there is still a long way to go. This topic will continue to be on the minds of many Americans for some time. But, how did we as a nation get to this point in our collective history? Who is Milk and why does any of this matter? (These are some of the questions you may hear students and staff ponder aloud and would be a great topic for discussion.) In honor of October’s designation as LGBT month and National Coming Out Day on October 11th, we will take a look at a pioneering activist by the name of Harvey Bernard Milk.


The film MILK is based on the gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. It opens with archival footage of police raids on gay bars during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the actual announcement of acting San Francisco Mayor: Dianne Feinstein informing the press that both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed on the morning of November 27, 1978 by suspected assassin and former Supervisor: Dan White. The next scene shows 48 year-old Milk recording his will to be played only if he’s assassinated. (In the film, Milk references several times that he doesn’t believe he will make it to his 50th birthday). The film chronicles Milk’s personal journey that led him to becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into a major public office in California and only the third openly gay politician in the U.S in 1977. A post that Milk held for only 11 months before being murdered.


The film shows that Harvey Milk wasn’t always a politician and fiery orator – known around San Fransico as the “Mayor of Castro Street”. Milk had evolved from a closeted New Yorker looking for a change, to a hippie theatre-lover and small business owner of Castro Camera. Milk had chosen to live a more open and honest life with his lover: Scott Smith in San Francisco’s Castro district. Dissatisfied with the way things were, Milk decides to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors hoping to instill change. Success wasn’t easy as Milk was viewed as an interloper by older gays living in the Castro. As a result, he built rapport and political standing utilizing grass roots efforts, his own sheer will and determination. Harvey began by organizing other gay Castro residents, while also forging alliances with labor unions, minorities, businessmen and labor unions.


Milk ran for the Board of Supervisors three times before being elected Supervisor in the newly created District 5 in 1977. It is here on the board that Milk meets fellow Supervisor Dan White who comes to resent Milk after he opposes projects that White presents to the board. One of Milk’s major projects is his crusade launched to defeat Proposition 6 – a California state initiative on the 1978 ballot sponsored by conservative legislator: John Briggs. Proposition 6 sought to ban gays, lesbians (and anyone who supported them) from working in California’s public schools. (This was part of a nationwide fight against gays started by Anita Bryant and her group Save Our Children in Florida to repeal a local gay rights ordinance in Dade County.) On November 7, 1978 – Milk and supporters celebrate after Prop 6 is defeated in California. Shortly after, Dan White resigns his position as Supervisor only to demand his seat back shortly after. Mayor George Moscone denies White’s request to reappoint White after Milk lobbied against it.


On the morning on November 27, 1978, White enters San Francisco City Hall through a side window with a concealed handgun. White meets with the Mayor and becomes enraged after he realizes he won’t be reappointed. White murders Moscone and then reloads his gun and goes looking for Supervisor Harvey Milk. White asks to speak with Milk in his former office, where he guns Harvey down and delivers the final shot execution-style. (This scene is one of the most dramatic ones in the film, for after the audience comes to know and like Harvey, he is senselessly taken away from us. It leaves the viewer with a profound sense of loss.) The last scene shows archival footage of the silent candlelight vigil as it progressed through the Castro District to City Hall the night of the assassinations. This scene hammers it home, that this senseless crime really did happen and all of these emotions are resonating within… but most of all epic sadness.


This film is a fascinating history lesson that presents many layers in an easily understood way. It’s a great way to talk about LGBT history with your students. It’s also an excellent conversation starter for discussing power and privilege with your students. Many people don’t know who Harvey Milk was. I will be the first to admit, I had never heard of him until II originally saw this film. It stayed with me and got me to open up and talk to others about what was going on in this country and it started a dialog. I think that was the whole purpose of this film – to serve as a vehicle to open up dialog on a subject that this country is only really starting to talk about. I find Harvey’s message of “hope” shining through in all of this. I think this film is honest because Harvey Milk was never depicted as a hero, but rather a regular guy that was trying to make the world a better place. He just happened to be gay. This film showed what an ordinary citizen could accomplish. He was in the right place at the right time to stand-up at the precise moment in history when it was most needed. He was that much needed spark, but unfortunately it cost him his life.


I give this film a rating of 4 out of 5 stars. “MILK” is a good starting point for having meaningful conversations with students or staff on the gay rights movement and would be an excellent choice to show this October for LGBT month. It provides a face to someone who made a difference in the movement and makes everything more understandable. The acting is superb. Sean Penn, who portrayed Harvey Milk, did a remarkable job of accurately representing his life and work – a feat that earned the actor an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. If you’re looking for a more in depth look at Harvey Milk – please check out additional GLACHUO Equity and Inclusion Committee Reviews: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk – a documentary about Harvey and the gay movement and political atmosphere of the 1970s and the book: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by: Randy Shilts.



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