Yesterday afternoon, I gave my last exam of the year; my History 24F (Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History) class drew the lucky (or unlucky) slot of being my “final final”. After the test was done, I went with those students who were able to join us for an early evening showing of “Milk” at a nearby theater. They’ve been a particularly wonderful group this term, and I wanted to take in this important film as a class. (Thanks are due to Laemmle theaters, for selling me discount group tickets, and to Stephanie and Taylor, two of my students who work there.)
If I hadn’t wanted to see it for the first time with my GLBTQ class, I would surely have gone to see “Milk” as soon as I could have; I waited impatiently for last night, knowing that it would be so much better to take it in in the company of so many young people whom I love and admire. I was not disappointed.
Much has already been written about the film, and about Sean Penn’s magnificent portrayal of Harvey Milk. The supporting cast — especially Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and James Brolin — is superb, with nearly every actor bearing an uncanny resemblance to his or her real-life counterpart. And though I had shuddered when I heard that Gus Van Sant was directing this film, as I normally don’t enjoy his style, I loved this movie. Just as another director I don’t like much, Spike Lee, was able to get out of his own way and produce the brilliant and near-perfect “X”, so too Van Sant never gave us the sense that we were supposed to sit back and watch his genius at work. He gave us a wonderful, deeply moving, timely and immensely inspiring film.
Let me say, of course, that everyone who has not seen “The Times of Harvey Milk”, the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary about Harvey, ought to see that. Van Sant clearly drew inspiration from that film (and some archival footage as well), and it helped strengthen the picture. I’ve shown “The Times of Harvey Milk” to many classes over the years, and could probably recite most of the film by heart. (Now that I think about it, there are perhaps no other films ever made — documentary or otherwise — I’ve seen as often!)
Like a great many people, I feel as if I have a personal stake in the story of Harvey Milk. I was eleven years old, and in the sixth grade at Carmel Middle School, when he and George Moscone were assassinated. I had heard of Moscone; my family, living on the Monterey Peninsula, had many connections to what all my life we have called simply “the City.” I only vaguely knew who Harvey was; I was an unusually politically aware eleven year-old, however, and had done some precinct walking against Proposition 6. (As the movie shows, Prop. 6 was the measure that was defeated in November 1978 that would have banned gays and lesbians from serving as teachers). Harvey had led the fight against Prop 6, and as a result, I knew his name, but somehow hadn’t grasped that he was a San Francisco Supervisor. Continue reading