Milk (2008)




Director:     Gus Van Sant.

Starring:     Sean Penn (Harvey Milk),   Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones),  Josh Brolin (Dan White),  Diego Luna (Jack Lira),  James Franco (Scott Smith),  Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg),  Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone),  Denis O'Hare (State Senator John Briggs),  Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich),  Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes),  Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta),  Brandon Boyce (Jim Rivaldo),  Howard Rosenman (David Goodstein),  Kelvin Yu (Michael Wong),  Jeff Koons (Art Agnos).

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a major political office in the United States


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Homosexuals and the police clash.  Tavern charges police brutality.  January 19, 1967. 

The police start a crackdown on homosexual bars.  Miami Herald. 

November 1978.  Harvey Milk tapes himself in the event of his death by assassination.  He says a gay activist like him makes himself a target.

Dianne Feinstein regrets to inform everyone that Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. 

New York City, 1970.  Harvey works for the Great American Insurance Company.  It's his birthday and he stops a young man to try to pick him up.  The fellow, named Scott, says he doesn't date guys over forty.  Harvey says he not 40 yet.  He has only midnight.  He kisses the young guy.  Scott goes home with Harvey and they go to bed.  The young man is from Jackson, Mississippi.  Harvey suggests that they run away to San Francisco, California. 

By 1972 much of the Haight district in San Francisco was boarded up.  There were still a lot of Irish-American Catholics in the area. Harvey and Scott settle near the corner of Market and Castro.  They open a camera shop called Castro Camera.  The owner of the liquor store across the way comes over to talk with the two guys.  The owner says that the police will pull their business license soon.   Harvey tells him thank you for the warm welcome to the neighborhood. 

Harvey is considering founding his own business association.  They will be the start of the revitalization of the whole neighborhood starting with Castro Street.  Scott is pessimistic about the possibility of their success.  He says that the neighbors hate them.  But Castro became destination number one for gays.  It became their neighborhood.  The police hated them and they hated the police.  It became a draw for activists, kids and a place that was a home away from home.  There were people like Jim Rivaldo, Dick Pabich and Dennis Yeron.  Even straight people came.  The leader of the Teamster Union came to Harvey for support on their strike against Coors beer.  The campaign was a success, thanks to the gays, in part. 

Harvey says it was their first taste of power.  People started calling Harvey the Mayor of Castro Street.  But not all was peaceful.  The police started sweeping the streets of homosexuals.  Indeed, there was fighting in the streets between the homosexuals and the cops.  One eye witness says that the police charged into the bar and he and some others ran into the men's room to keep out of their way.  They heard screaming and crunching.   Harvey decides that like the black community has black leaders, the gay community should have gay leaders. 

By 1973 it was definitely their neighborhood, but it still wasn't safe for gays.  Robert Hillsborough walking with his lover was accosted and murdered by anti-gay men.  Harvey gets up on a stand with the word "soap" written on the box.  He introduces himself as Harvey Milk. 

The police with their badges covered sent fourteen gays to the hospital or to jail.  The charge was that the gays were walking on the sidewalks. 

Harvey decides he will launch his candidacy for San Francisco City Supervisor.  He starts handing out fliers.  He sees a young fellow from Phoenix, Arizona and he tries to get him active in gay politics.  His name is Cleve Jones.  But Cleve doesn't want to be involved in politics.  It's just to bourgeois for him.  But Harvey says they are fighting for real issues affecting gays such as police abuse and issues of rent.  Cleve still isn't buying. 

Harvey receives his first hate mail.  He and Scott go visit two of the leading figures in the San Francisco gay community: David Goodstein and his lawyer Richard Stokes.  Goodstein bought The Advocate fairly recently.  Harvey would like the paper's endorsement.  But Goodstein and Stokes have all kind of excuses why the time is still not right to make a move.  Harvey is disgusted with them and leaves.  Harvey says that he came in tenth, but they tried it again in 1975.  Now he is wearing a business suit.  But he still lost the race.  On the positive side they got more votes than the previous year. 

In 1976 Harvey ran for the California state assembly.  He tells the story of the gay man Robert Hillsborough who was stabbed fifteen times.  The last words he heard were:  faggot, faggot, faggot! And they still have not caught the murderers. 

Scott chases everyone out of the apartment so he can be alone and eat with Harvey.  Harvey promises him he'll quit if he doesn't win this time. 

Harvey runs into Cleve Jones again.  Cleve tells him that in Barcelona they held a memorial march for all the gays killed under the dictator Franco.  This lead to a riot and blood actually ran in the gutters.  Harvey tells Cleve that he can't use the Castro just to cruise.  He needs to become active.

Anita Bryant is making a name for herself in bigoted circles.  She works hard to repeal a law in Dade County, Florida that protected homosexuals from certain types of discrimination.  Anita argues that homosexuality should be illegal. 

Harvey loses again, but still gained more votes than ever before.  But things started looking up as the idea became popular to have political districts representing various communities.  With just the Haight and Castro communities (the hippies and the gays) Harvey would have a very good chance of winning.  He would be the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in the United States.

Walter Cronkite of CBS news says that it looks like the ordinance giving protection for gays from job and housing discrimination is going to be repealed.  Anita Bryant is very happy saying that the normal majority will finally have its say. 

A young boy calls Harvey from Minnesota.  He is going to commit suicide because his family is going to take him to the hospital to "fix" him.  Harvey tells the young fellow that he is not sick and God does not hate him.  The Minnesotan hangs up. 

Harvey is told that there is going to be a riot.  They want him to come down to the street.  When he is on the street the police tell Harvey to take care of his people or they will take care of them. Cleve goes to different bars and tells the guys to get out of the bar and on the streets.  They have vowed to fight back against Anita Bryan and her ilk.  Harvey gets up and tells his people they they will march the streets to show the world their anger.  The people march shouting:  "Gay rights now!" 

When they reach city hall, Harvey gets up with his megaphone and says:  "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you."  He shouts that they must fight!  Anita Bryant didn't win tonight.  She actually brought the gays together.  She is creating a national gay force. 

San Francisco changed the voting rules so that gays could elect gays. 

Scott is leaving the relationship  It is 1977 and he says he can't do another election campaign.  Harvey acts like he is indifferent to his leaving, but after he leaves Harvey says to himself:  "God damn it!" and watches Scott leave from his window. 

Harvey introduces to his team to their  new campaign manager.  Her name is Anne Kronenberg.  The guys are a little skeptical at first.  Anne asks the guys if they are scared of girls?  They need her.  Rick Stokes, another gay candidate, is not pulling out of the race.  Anne says that she will call the Chronicle and get their endorsement.  The guys are skeptical that this can be done. 

Dan White is running for supervisor.  Anne comes through with a number of newspaper endorsements for Harvey.  The team holds a big celebration. 

A new man comes into Harvey's life.  His is a Latino named Jack.  He is a bit drunk and Harvey brings him into his house.  Soon they are rolling on the floor and having sex.  Jack says:  "I love you." 

District election, November 7, 1977.  Running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors it all came together for Harvey.  He won!  On Market Street it was like New Year's Eve.  It is so crowded in the shop that Goodstein is left outside on the street.  January 9, 1978 Harvey takes his oath of office. 

Harvey speaks with Dan White.  Dan was a cop for awhile and then became a fire fighter.  Harvey is friendly because he says: "We need allies." 

Jack breaks into Harvey's apartment.  Harvey says he will make Jack a key to the place, if he promises never to break in again.  Robert agrees. 

Dan White says he won't support the San Francisco gay ordinance.  But he tells Harvey that they should watch out for each other's interests.  He says he would like that.  The team asks Harvey what is he doing flirting with Dan White of all people?   Harvey says that Dan has no friends.  He's really lost.  And Dan intrigues Harvey.  He says that Dan is one of them, which meets with some derision from the team. 

One of the leaders of the anti-gay forces is John Briggs.  Harvey tells his people that the fight is coming here to California.   Proposition Six is coming their way.  Teachers will be fired if they are homosexuals.  John Briggs says that the gay perverts recruit their children to their cause.  To his critics, John answers:  "You can argue with me, but you cannot argue with God."  The polls indicate 75 to 80% percent support for Proposition Six.  Many in the homosexual community don't think they have a chance of defeating the proposition.    Harvey says their attitude is a coward's response to a dangerous threat.  Harvey tells his team that they have to let everyone know who they are.  They will do all they can to beat Proposition Six.   

Dan White seems out of touch with reality.  He can't see genuine political differences as just that and not a rejection of him personally.  He asks Harvey:  "Why are you turning on me?  I can't go back without this.  I gave you a chance and you blew it!."

In Wichita, Kansas they repealed a law protecting gays.  Cleve says they are planning a rally because they are losing Wichita.  The problem is that they don't have a permit to march.  Harvey tells Cleve to march the crowd up to City Hall.  If there is any trouble, Harvey will come out of City Hall and become the peacemaker.  The crowd chants:  "Civil rights or civil war!  Gay rights now!"  At City Hall Harvey comes out to speak to the crowd.  Harvey gets some press that says Harvey Milk had a successful mediation with the crowd.  

But Harvey says they need much more exposure.  He needs to find a populist issue that everyone is interested in.  So he decides to take a stand against dog mess, which does bring him a lot of attention. 

The vote on the San Francisco gay ordinance is 10 yes and 1 no.  Dan was the only one who voted no.  Harvey goes to speak with Dan.  He tells Dan:  "This isn't you, Dan."  They surely can think of something they can both work on together.  Dan says he wants Harvey to introduce a call for pay raises for them.  He says he can't live on his salary.  Harvey says that's not a good idea and Dan resents it. 

Harvey is given a 48th birthday party.  Scott is there and tells Harvey that it looks like he is going to make it to 50.  Harvey leaves his own party and runs into Dan Milk who is a bit drunk.  He tells Harvey that the dog poop thing was a good one.  Dan says he learned a lot from watching Harvey, a lot about how to handle himself in politics.  Harvey excuses himself saying that he has to get back home. 

Gay Freedom Day Parade.  June 25, 1978.  Harvey rides on the back of a convertible automobile in the parade.  He is about to go up and speak to the crowd when he is handed a piece of hate mail saying that Harvey will get the first bullet the minute he goes up on the podium.  Harvey goes up there anyway.  He urges his gay friends and neighbors to come out to their friends, parents and neighbors.  This will help the movement.  He says the movement is partly for all the youngsters out there who have been scared by the actions in Dade County, Florida and Eugene, Oregon.  To all the bigots he says, no mater how hard they try, they can never get rid of the phrase: "All men are created equal."  On the news Dan White speaks up against the nudity present in the gay parade.  No other parade can get away with that, so why should the gays? 

Harvey speaks with John Briggs.  John wants to be in the gay parade, but everyone seems afraid of the possible violent repercussions.  Harvey uses the opportunity to challenge Briggs to a public debate. Briggs agrees and some debates are set up.  Harvey does a good job showing the foolishness in Briggs's arguments.  But in conservative places like Fullerton, Orange County, California anything Harvey says is booed and hissed at. 

Jack calls Harvey and begs him to come home by 6:15 p.m.  Harvey says he will. 

Harvey runs into Dan White again.  He offers a deal to Dan, but Dan just says:  "I don't trade votes!"  Harvey can't get through to him.  He says that even Ronald Reagan opposes Proposition Six.   Dan just says:  "You can't humiliate me!  You will not demean me!"  Dan is becoming very paranoid and increasingly angry, blaming others for his lack of success. 

Harvey gets home to find that Jack has hanged himself.  Seeing how depressed Harvey is, Scott tells Harvey that he did everything that he could.  Harvey says he could have came back home at 6 rather than 6:15.  But the fight goes on.  Harvey says he had no chance to mourn Jack. 

Proposition Vote, November 7, 1974.  Governor Jerry Brown to former Governor Ronald Reagan, say there are already enough laws on the books to protect children.  Jimmy Carter asks the people of California to vote against Proposition Six.  The young man from Minnesota calls Harvey to say he now lives in California and since he has turned eighteen he voted against Proposition Six.  He congratulates Harvey on his success.   

The elections results start coming in and the early returns are bad news for the gay movement.  But then Harvey learns that they won with 65% percent in Los Angeles County.  Briggs is going down 2 to 1!  The opinion polls were dead wrong!  Dan White watches Harvey on the television and becomes angry.  Harvey says:  "There is a place for us." 

Harvey sees Dan, who tells him:  "I just resigned!"  As he goes to leave for home the Police Association grabs him.  They want to talk to him about staying on and continuing the fight.  And so now Dan wants his job back.  But this time Harvey says no!  He tells the Mayor that Dan White was the biggest thorn in their sides.  And the Mayor is up for re-election.  The gays will not vote for Moscone if he refuses Dan White's resignation and takes him back.  Moscone tells Harvey that he sounds like Boss Tweed of New York or Mayor Daly of Chicago.  Harvey thinks about that and tells the Mayor:  "I like that.  A homosexual with power."  

Dan White gets a phone call from a reporter asking him for his reaction to the fact that he is not going to get his job back   Early in the morning Dan White comes into City Hall through a window.  He is confronted by the janitor, but bluffs his way through giving some explanation for why he came through a window.  Harvey makes a call to Dianne in City Hall.  She tells him that if Dan shows up, just avoid him.   Dan White asks the secretary if he can see the Mayor.  The Mayor tells Dan that he made the decision and he can't take it back.  Be reasonable!  The secretary hears three muffled noises (the muffled sound of bullets fired).  Dan leaves the office and walks down to find Harvey.  He asks Harvey if he can speak with him in private.  They go to Harvey's office.  Dan closes the door, turns around, points his pistol at Harvey and shoots him three times.  Harvey drops to his knees, but doesn't go down all the way.  So Dan shoots him in the back of the head. 

There is a big candlelight memorial parade in honor of Harvey Milk. 

Over 30,000 people marched from Castro to City Hall to honor the slain City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone.  White's lawyer says that Dan had eaten so many Twinkies that he developed a chemical imbalance in his brain that led him to kill Milk and Moscone.  This became known as the "Twinkie Defense".   Dan White was found guilty of manslaughter, the minimum charge for both murders.  The murders set off "The White Night Riots."  In 1984, after serving only five years in prison, Dan White was released.  Less than two years later, Dan White returned to San Francisco and committed suicide. 


Good film.  Sean Penn was terrific as Harvey Milk.  It was interesting watching Harvey and the movement's struggle for the recognition of gay rights.  And they certainly had some very determined bigots against them, including Anita Bryant the singer.  The film is another personal success story (but with a tragic end), but also a movement's success story.  Well done. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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