Focus Features

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biographical film Milk, 2008

On the surface, Milk isn’t a terribly complicated film. Whatever complexity it has is revealed subtly, intermittently. As a description of the final eight years of Harvey Bernard Milk’s life, it’s fairly accurate. The screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black—Mormon-raised and a former writer and producer on the Mormon-themed, critically lauded television series Big Love—pretty much follows the standard biopic formula: subject grapples with self, finds self, becomes a public self, weathers controversy, triumphs personally and/or professionally, and then dies. Black’s attempts to dress up this schema in the gay trappings afforded by his subject do nothing to meaningfully pervert the form—or Milk’s emotional tidiness.

We watch, with varying degrees of interest, as Sean Penn, in the title role, rises from opera-loving, affable San Francisco merchant to be one of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office in the US. Though the film’s emotional trajectory may bear no outward resemblance to, say, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler morphing from playboy to savior, the moral message is essentially the same: the road to redemption is paved by good works.

But Black and Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk, have something Spielberg and his team didn’t: their hero’s martyrdom. On the morning of November 27, 1978, at the age of forty-eight, Harvey Milk was shot and killed a few doors away from his office in San Francisco’s City Hall. The killer—Dan White, a former colleague on the Board of Supervisors—later blamed the crime on intense mood swings that were at least partially due to his habit of consuming large amounts of sugar. (During his trial, White’s claim became known in the press as the “Twinkie Defense.”) Sadly, even this cataclysmic event—one of Milk’s concluding scenes—barely disturbs the homo-lite surface the filmmakers have constructed all along. Instead, the circumstances surrounding Milk’s death become yet another opportunity to exploit a gay cliché.

After White (Josh Brolin) blows a couple of holes in Milk’s hand and chest, the victim starts to fall. As he lands, the camera pulls back and we see what he does: a banner announcing the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tosca. Yes, we understand that Milk was a fan of the opera—a stereotypically gay interest. And that Tosca is about tragically thwarted love—a stereotypically gay theme. But as Milk falls to the ground, his hands flailing in slow motion—reminding us of previous scenes showing him conducting along to his opera records and gesticulating while he talked, both stereotypically gay affectations—we’re reminded of another fluttering pair of hands in another gay-themed, populist-minded movie featuring another heterosexual star: Tom Hanks, as the HIV-infected lawyer in director Jonathan Demme’s 1993 hit, Philadelphia. That film was nominated for five Oscars and won two, including Best Actor for Hanks.

Milk received eight nominations for this year’s awards; among them are Van Sant for Best Director, Black for his script, and Penn for his impersonation of a man who did not find his true calling until he was forty-three years old. In the film, Milk doesn’t make much of a point about those lost years. “Forty years old and what have I done with my life?” he asks a new lover near the beginning. But the script is never explicit about what prevented him from living fully before 1973, the pivotal year in which he opened his camera store in the Castro. For a better sense of the painful secrecy Milk endured as a closeted gay man living in a pre-Stonewall world, and of the subsequent, purposeful freedom he felt during his belated coming-out, one can turn not only to Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s exceptional 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985), but to the bits of documentary footage Van Sant inserts into Milk’s manufactured world.

Especially moving are the silent black-and-white images that make up the movie’s title sequence, in which well-groomed, thin, and for the most part white young men are rounded up in bars, cuffed, and arrested, while newspaper articles act as a kind of graphic voiceover: “Homosexuals and Police Clash”; “Tavern Charges Police Brutality”; “Police Start Crackdown on Homosexual Bars, Arrest 6.” These prefatory images, set apart from the main narrative, remain the film’s clearest statement of an essential fact: for most of his life, Milk lived in terror of arrest, interrogation, and punishment.

Born in Woodmere, Long Island, on May 22, 1930, Milk was the younger of two boys in a family descended from Lithuanian Jews on both sides. (Their last name was originally Milch.) Milk’s paternal grandfather maintained strong ties to the synagogue he helped build in his grandson’s hometown. Nearly from the first, young Harvey was the Jewish arrival myth made flesh. Charismatic and athletic, the opera-loving Bay Shore High School student was also a linebacker on the school’s football team. He graduated in 1947 and—aware that he was gay, but still closeted—enrolled that fall in New York State College for Teachers at Albany (since renamed the University of Albany). By 1951, his senior year, Milk was the school paper’s sports editor. He was also the preferred friend of those outsiders among the student body—blacks, queens—who could take shelter behind his macho affect and butch interests.


Three months after receiving his degree, Milk enlisted in the Navy. He rose through the Navy’s ranks quickly. Within eight months of enlisting, he applied for and was granted a place at Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. After that, the late gay historian and critic Randy Shilts tells us in his biography, The Mayor of Castro Street,1 Milk became “communications officer, lieutenant junior grade,” and served on the USS Kittiwake, “a San Diego–based aircraft carrier that cruised the Pacific.” In San Diego—which became Milk’s home for most of his tour of duty—another kind of cruising was going on, not so official. Gay seamen and civilians would congregate at his apartment, a relatively safe zone away from the menace of undercover cops and the threat of entrapment. Gay bars raided by the police risked losing their liquor licenses, and if their customers were arrested, the authorities would place phone calls to their families and employers, effectively outing them as gay and making them personal and professional pariahs.

“In essential ways, my homosexual needs have made me a nigger,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1969 essay “Being Queer.” He continues:

Most obviously, of course, I have been subject to arbitrary brutality from citizens and the police; but except for being occasionally knocked down, I have gotten off lightly in this respect…. What makes me a nigger is that it is not taken for granted that my outgoing impulse is my right….

Nobody likes to be rejected, but there is a way of rejecting someone that accords him his right to exist and is the next best thing to accepting him. I have rarely enjoyed this treatment.2

The outsider status Goodman describes would have applied just as well to Milk’s experience as a gay man—although his pre–San Francisco self would be loath to claim it. Milk was (and to a large degree always remained) an ethical dreamer who tried to repel any unjust truth with a smile, another dream.

After his Navy stint, which ended in 1955, Milk worked as a high school math and history teacher and basketball coach, for an insurance company, and then as research supervisor for Bache and Company, a Wall Street investment firm. Stolid and bourgeois, he slogged on, wearing suits and punching a time clock, not quite knowing who he might be, and always hiding behind his at times overwhelming personal responsibilities and burdens. He took a series of younger lovers, all of whom were in some way needy or damaged. (Several attempted suicide, with the last, Jack Lira, succeeding some months before Milk’s own death.) Hoping to temper the insecurities of Jack McKinley, a lover who suffered from manic depression, abused drugs and alcohol, and frequently threatened suicide, the still-closeted Milk pulled up stakes in 1967 and moved with McKinley to Dallas, where he worked for Bache’s Texas branch. Three weeks after arriving, McKinley, bored, went back to New York. Milk returned a year later.

In New York McKinley met Tom O’Horgan, the director of the Broadway production of Hair, and went on to direct the show’s San Francisco production; Milk followed him there in 1969 and found work as an analyst in the city’s financial district. Life among the free-love set, including hanging out with McKinley’s progressive theater friends, contributed to Milk’s growing recognition of his queer self; the times, as Shilts writes, were “eroding Milk’s conservatism.” His resistance to coming out was the last thing to erode—he didn’t want to put a name to his oppression—but still, he was changing. A “break,” according to Shilts,

came the day the United States announced the invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970…. Milk joined protestors at the Pacific Stock Exchange. In a burst of charismatic theatricality, he jumped in front of the crowd and angrily burned his BankAmericard, denouncing big business.

By 1971, Milk was back in New York, this time living with Scott Smith, a Southern-born actor he’d met in the Christopher Street subway station on his forty-first birthday. That year, Milk became an associate producer on a theater project of O’Horgan’s, in which Smith was a cast member. But his interest in the play was short-lived. He preferred San Francisco, and moved out west again; Smith followed a few months later, after honoring his commitment to the show. Once reunited, the lovers purchased a car, adopted a dog, and spent the better part of a year traveling through California, living off their unemployment checks. Nearly twenty years younger than Milk, Smith had a different attitude toward queerness—an unapologetic politicized attitude that dovetailed with the burgeoning hippie movement, and no doubt influenced Milk’s decision to come out by the time they settled into the Castro.


Milk more or less begins there, with its hero dropping out, growing his hair, smoking pot, loving Smith, and starting a different life. The transformation itself isn’t shown or explained; from the outset, Penn conveys Milk’s newfound freedom with a degree of physical joy that verges on the ecstatic, especially in those moments when he’s not encumbered by Black’s bland dialogue.

Just after Milk opens his store on Castro Street, there is a series of brief, beautifully composed, nearly dialogue-free shots that show the new merchant and his boyfriend expressing their love—at times quite publicly—against the backdrop of their still largely conservative, working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood. Milk and Scott’s “out” behavior signifies a social shift in the Castro, a shift the filmmakers exhibit with great swiftness and skill. In one emblematic scene, we witness the economic power of Milk’s influence over the increasing numbers of gay men in the neighborhood when he asks them to patronize a liquor store run by a homophobe, and they do—the better to show the straight businessman the power of the gay dollar. (He’d be out of business if Milk, who went on to dub himself the “unofficial Mayor of Castro Street” even before he sought public office, were to turn all those queens against him.) As the men line up for their bottle of fun, Milk swishes through the shop, shirtless, delighted by his power and the power of his people, en masse. The happiness Penn shows here is almost giddy. He’s a joyful lord in a new, gay kingdom.



City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone at the signing of San Francisco’s 1978 gay civil rights bill

“The politics of the Castro were essentially the politics of Harvey Milk—the hip politics that the forty-three-year-old convert to bohemia devised in the front room of his camera store,” wrote Frances FitzGerald in her brilliant report on the Castro for The New Yorker.

They were difficult to define without reference to the man himself. Randy Shilts…traced Milk’s decision to run for city supervisor a few months after he settled in the Castro to three incidents: first, the contretemps that Milk had with a state official over a hundred-dollar deposit against sales tax; second, his discovery that the local public school could not afford to buy enough slide projectors…;and, third, to his indignation at former Attorney General John Mitchell’s performance at the Senate Watergate hearings. This was typical Milk politics. The man had no received political opinions when he decided to run for office.”3

As we watch Milk improvise his new life—that is, as he jettisons being a private, closeted citizen in favor of being a gay father figure and then an almost comically underskilled but indefatigably enthusiastic burgeoning politician—we see how in sync all of that is with Van Sant’s improvisatory aesthetic, and how much that aesthetic is ruled by Van Sant’s interest, largely, in men, not women. (One of Milk’s shortcomings is that the filmmakers leave out Milk’s intense and complex relationship with a number of powerful, politically active women, a fact that Epstein and Schmiechen address by letting those women speak.) He has a primarily visual sense of the world that works best when the actors have little, if anything, to say. One gets the sense that the minimal use of language leaves him free to invent the kind of stories he prefers to tell—often distinctly cinematic, critical responses to history, criminality, and literature.

In his exceptional 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho, the director “outs” Shakespeare by putting Falstaff’s love for Prince Hal in the foreground of the film, which is also populated by male hustlers. In Elephant (2003), the director and his invaluable cinematographer, Harris Savides (who also shot Milk ), devised a series of long, elegant tracking shots that followed a number of different high school “types”—the jock, the nerd, and so on—as they walked through the halls of their school, played sports, and hung out in the library. At the end of the film, two young boys, who briefly acknowledge their erotic attachment (again wordlessly), wreak havoc on their fellow students and the school by killing members of the student body, staff, and faculty. ( Elephant’s minimal plot was based on the 1999 Columbine killings. Technically, the film owes a great deal to the late British director Alan Clarke’s 1989 film, also called Elephant, about a series of unexplained killings in Northern Ireland.)

Van Sant’s aesthetic is constricted by the fixed nature of biography. After Milk has brought us up to 1973, the year Milk decides to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one feels that Van Sant loses interest in the story. There’s no room for invention—not with his actors, or even his cinematographer. He must stick to the facts, or to those facts that make Milk Milk—that is, a subject worthy of a biopic. Early on in the film, when Van Sant inserts ghostly documentary images of people in and around the Castro in the 1970s into the montage, one has the sense that the director is making a subtle point about the film’s manufactured past in relation to the “real” past of the Castro.

As we watch Milk run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors (between 1973 and 1976, he ran and lost three times, twice for the Board of Supervisors and once for the California State Assembly), Penn becomes less of an ensemble player, and by all appearances begins to direct himself. It’s as if, denied the opportunity to play with the images as much as he’d like, Van Sant has given up playing at all. Left to his own devices, Penn becomes too actory. But it’s Emile Hirsch (playing Cleve Jones, Milk’s teenage protégé) who forces Penn to return to the seductive openness he demonstrated in the beginning of the film. Dressed in shorts, his hair a mass of curls, Jones was a recent transplant to San Francisco when he met Milk in the Castro in 1973. Having survived more than his share of anti-gay crimes in his home state of Arizona, Jones arrived in San Francisco armed with his only defense—his smart mouth, and reflexive irony.

By the time he meets Milk by chance near the latter’s camera shop and thinks he’s being hit on, Hirsch lets those defenses show—physically and verbally. He’s attracted to Milk’s paternalism and disturbed by that attraction. During that first meeting, he’s drawn to Milk as he walks away. But as Milk talks, Hirsch seems to resign himself to his attraction, letting his arms fall to his sides. In most of their scenes, Hirsch makes Penn resist the temptation to play cute by confronting him with a vulnerability that’s greater than his own. Indirectly, Hirsch represents Van Sant’s intuitive visual approach to filmmaking, while Penn sticks close to his need to please—a desire that mirrors Milk’s own desire to charm, always.

By 1975, Milk had become an ally of Mayor George Moscone, who helped institute a system by which candidates for the Board of Supervisors ran by district rather than from the city at large. In 1977, Milk launched his fourth campaign from the Castro, which is to say the newly created District Five. This time, he won the election—and a larger platform from which to articulate one of his biggest political causes, equal rights for gay people. The effects of his own history of secrecy weighed heavily on Milk. In the film, Penn puts it bluntly: “I’ve had four lovers, and three of them attempted suicide. And it’s my fault, because I made them stay in the closet.” Milk’s tendency to be drawn to the disenfranchised finds its final object, in a way, in Dan White, a straight, sports-loving San Francisco native who was one of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. (Given Milk’s early years as a sports enthusiast, it’s relatively easy to see why he feels for White: White is the man Milk could have become had he married and remained closeted.)

Just thirty-one years old and a new father, White, a former fireman, couldn’t make ends meet. He was already emotionally and fiscally overburdened when he joined the board—a low-paying gig. Unlike his colleague, White couldn’t handle the pressures of the job—or his lack of star power, certainly compared to that of his colleague Milk, who was evolving into something of a bigger star as his tenure went on. In their relatively brief scenes together, the more politically savvy Milk tries to connect with White, as played by Josh Brolin, to get him to talk about his sense of failure, all in an attempt to help him move on, and look forward. Brolin and Penn bring a homoerotic element to their scenes. They let their words drift as they pause, or go markedly silent as the other talks. Penn mutes his voice in his private scenes with Brolin, like a particularly caring coach.

Indeed, he’d like nothing more than to be White’s coach in the political arena, and Brolin shows how flattered and disturbed he is by Milk’s attention by looking across at him with furtive glances, his ramrod-straight back growing tighter and tighter. (Savides photographs the actors close together, sometimes in a tight two-shot; for another shot, he pulls the camera back, and we see a high wall dwarfing the two slight men, making them seem more human.) At times, the actors remind one of the brothers in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a film made edgy by brother love, brother competition, all in the attempt to wrest love from the father. For Milk and White, that father was Moscone.

While Brolin is a remarkably controlled film actor—he doesn’t overact and give the camera more than it can handle; he keeps his facial muscles relatively still, and lets us read the fear and hatred in his eyes—he plays the heavy from the beginning, thus offering us few surprises. In the end, it’s more affecting to watch the real figure in the footage of him that’s included in The Times of Harvey Milk. White as himself is more nuanced. We watch as the all-American-looking straight guy walks and talks to a reporter in District 8, the southeastern portion of the city that had elected him. As he strolls along in a light-colored jacket, you’d never suspect that the man talking about the importance of sports in his general picture of a distinctly American way of life was capable of that other American pastime: violence.

White was the only member of the Board of Supervisors who refused to vote for the San Francisco gay civil rights bill, which would prevent gays from being fired from their jobs if they came out—a cause especially close to Milk’s heart. Nevertheless, the bill went through in the spring of 1978. In a fit of pique that fall, the seemingly luckless White resigned from the board; then, some days later, he asked to be reinstated. (White’s dramatic gesture was eclipsed by a greater event—the Jim Jones tragedy in Guyana.) Moscone refused White’s request; several days after that final rejection, White showed up at City Hall and killed Moscone, then Milk, before turning himself in at a local police station.

On the night Harvey Milk died, over 70,000 people gathered in silence in front of the San Francisco’s City Hall. Van Sant uses some of the footage shot that night to wrap his own film up, which, in form, certainly, borrows heavily from the structure Epstein and Schmiechen used to construct their documentary. ( Milk begins with Penn dictating his last will and testament into a tape recorder, while Epstein and Schmiechen use Milk’s actual tape recording as part of the voiceover narration in the early part of their film.)

One may find oneself powerfully moved by the images of candles flickering on that cold November night in San Francisco, and the close-ups of various stunned faces. But the question remains: Who owns Harvey Milk, and the rights to his hard-won, unequivocally “out” gayness? As one watches those lights flicker in San Francisco from the distance of thirty years now, one thinks of the dead in the Castro’s second cataclysmic event, after Harvey Milk’s assassination: AIDS. By the late 1980s, the community that sought and found physical and social freedom because of men like Harvey Milk was being decimated, and a new era of bigotry, prejudice, and secrecy had begun, sparking these words from Thom Gunn, San Francisco’s unofficial gay poet laureate:

My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.

Still, something was born out of those ashes: in 1985, the Hetrick-Martin Institute opened the Harvey Milk High School in New York’s East Village. The school is meant to provide social as well as educational support to those lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth who find it difficult or impossible to attend their neighborhood high schools because of violence or harassment.

This Issue

March 12, 2009