In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to win a major elected office in the United States. The next year he was killed.
Was Harvey Milk's defining nature a product of heredity or environment? Did he have a choice? Or not?
Here, the creators of the biopic Milk don't mince words. He was not born ... for politics. He was made. His career was shaped, bit by bit, by countless accumulated moments. He was not destined to be anybody's hero, and he certainly had no desire to become a martyr.
In 1970, he was simply a 40-year-old insurance salesman sexually attracted to younger men.
His career track really begins when he meets Scott Smith on a subway platform in New York City. According to the film, Harvey asks him to spend the night before even asking his name: "You're not going to let me spend my birthday alone, are you?"
And so they share clutches, kisses, a bed, a piece of birthday cake. And Harvey laments to his newfound lover, "I'm 40 years old and I haven't done a thing I'm proud of."
Scott suggests he needs a change of pace. So the two of them leave for San Francisco's Castro district to join an emerging homosexual community there. Harvey opens a small camera shop but soon discovers that, even in this gay-friendly enclave, folks who share this lifestyle are not particularly safe. The movie tells us that many residents are assaulted or suffer from police harassment. One man is killed—stabbed 15 times as his assailant bellows anti-gay epithets.
The persecution inspires Harvey to dive into politics. He competes to be one of San Francisco's six supervisors. And loses. He runs again. And loses. Then he runs for California's state assembly. And loses.
But in the midst of all the losing, Harvey becomes the unofficial "Mayor of Castro" and gradually shapes San Francisco's homosexual community into a potent political force. In 1977 he runs again for supervisor. And wins. He becomes the first openly gay man to win a major elected office in the United States.
Challenges come fast and furious after that. Harvey loses his politics-weary partner, Scott. And John Briggs, a failed contender for the California governorship, introduces Proposition 6—a bill that would require California schools to fire any openly homosexual teachers and those who politically support them. He is also forced to wrangle with Dan White, a fellow supervisor who, for reasons largely unknown, guns him down the following year.
Harvey's moral goals run counter to biblical Christianity. But some of his actions and words are well worth noting here: He shows a great deal of righteous anger when a gay man is killed and the police apparently don't care to find the killer. He tells a young homosexual, near suicide, to not give up hope and promises him that "God doesn't hate you." Also, Harvey is a savvy politician who understands the power of like-minded people within the confines of our representational democracy. "We have to let them know who we are," he says.
Forget Dan White: The film suggests that the Christian Church—at least the conservative wing of the Church—is the real villain. That Church is at first personified by Anita Bryant, a one-time singer who, in the 1970s, spearheaded a conservative Christian movement to oppose special rights based on sexual identity or behavior. She says that she "loves homosexuals," though the filmmakers clearly doubt her sincerity. We see Bryant only in actual news footage, where she advocates making homosexuality illegal and discusses the "evil forces around us." "Tonight the laws of God and the culture values of man have been vindicated," she declares after a victory.
Harvey's response? "Anita Bryant did not win tonight. Anita Bryant brought us together."
Briggs explains that his Proposition 6 is designed to root out "gay perverts and pedophiles," and during a debate with Harvey declares, "You can argue with me. You cannot argue with God." We watch news footage of a young believer, interviewed outside a church, talking about how special rights based on sexuality are a threat to God's laws and traditional family values—a sentiment that is repeatedly derided in Milk.
The film also shows a Christian questioning where Jesus' pledge to love one another is to be found in the debate over Prop. 6, while an Episcopal pastor tells us that the proposition could lead to "a very severe witch hunt."
Harvey attends the christening of Dan White's baby boy in a Catholic church.
Speaking about homosexual sex, Harvey says, "Don't knock it till you've tried it." And, indeed, Harvey is shown (a lot) with two sexual partners. He and Scott are in bed together—briefly engaged in a sexual act. (The camera sees the back of one of them.) Afterwards, a more lingering scene depicts them talking in bed while apparently nude. (They're partially covered with sheets.) The two kiss and embrace frequently, and Scott swims in someone's pool naked. (The camera stays behind him.)
Harvey meets his other sexual partner, Jack, after Scott leaves. Harvey takes him home and the two frolic nude in the shadows, tackling and slapping each other. Later, Harvey caresses Jack and reminds Jack of his name. "I love you, Harvey," Jack says. The two of them also hug and kiss frequently, and Jack performs a striptease for Harvey, taking off his belt before the scene ends.
Several other men are shown kissing and caressing, and one of Harvey's friends performs oral sex on another in a back room. (The scene is shot from the waist up.) Characters pass around pictures of a nude male model who is lounging on his stomach, and Scott shows off a nude centerfold at a political rally. (Some of the model's pubic hair is visible onscreen).
Transvestites make occasional appearances. And there's a brief, faraway shot of a bare-breasted woman. Characters regularly call themselves "queens." Dan White refers to homosexuals as "queers." Comments are made about bathhouses and getting paid to do "tricks." Men ogle each other and crack lewd jokes.
The assassination scene shows the first bullet hitting Harvey in the hand; skin flies on impact. The next two thud into each of his shoulders. Harvey finds himself kneeling on the floor, staring out the window as Dan White administers a final, unseen bullet to the back of his head.
Dan White also kills San Francisco's mayor, but the murder takes place behind closed doors, the gunshots muffled.
Before all of that, Harvey receives two death threats—one of them graphically illustrated. Jack hangs himself. (We see the dangling corpse.) And Harvey mentions that of his four long-term partners, three have tried to commit suicide.
Men tussle with police. Protesters march on city hall, disconnecting power and disabling a cable car. A character reminisces about gay activists rioting in Spain, saying, "There was blood literally running in the gutter."
Crude or Profane Language
About 15 f-words and a half-dozen or more s-words. God's name is misused at least a dozen times. Three or four times it's paired with "d--n." Milder profanities include "a--" and "h---." Crude slang is assigned to male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
While smoking something, Scott mentions that he spent his last unemployment check on an ounce of pot. Harvey says that he's giving up marijuana. Scott and Harvey drink wine while in bed together. Others drink whiskey and beer, and Dan White shows up at Harvey's birthday party drunk, still swigging a beer. Jack shows up at Harvey's camera shop falling down drunk.
Other Negative Elements
One of Harvey's most popular acts as a city supervisor is a law requiring dog owners to clean up their pets' feces. The film spends some time showing how Harvey orchestrates a press conference on the issue, a production that features him stepping in poo. In another scene, a character disdainfully wipes his hand after shaking Harvey's.
"Since the passage of California's Proposition 8 [which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman], protesting crowds in the tens of thousands have flooded the streets," reports Newsweek, "and the producers of Milk aren't shy about calling the film about the assassinated gay activist a celluloid rallying cry."
That means Harvey Milk himself would've been proud. This movie, like the man, is brash, charismatic, unapologetic and uncompromising. It's not about making friends. It's about drawing lines. If you agree with Harvey, Milk tells us, you're A-OK. If you don't, you're a bigot.
"[Distribution company] Focus [Features] plans on selling Milk in part as a story of hope and change ... just as it sold Brokeback [Mountain] as a love story," reports The Hollywood Reporter. But the paper's website isn't so sure that's fair. "The ploy was logical with Brokeback," Steven Zeitchik writes. "It's less so here. Like Brokeback, Milk features a gay romance. But unlike Brokeback, Milk is made by gay filmmakers, features the polarizing [Sean] Penn and puts itself squarely in a political context."
So, with those lines so visibly drawn, there's little need to spend more time defining them. Instead, I want to draw attention to something standing just to the side of the homosexual skirmish—the issue of promiscuity. The fact that these men hook up with each other before they even know each other's names. The fact that Harvey comforts one of his friends by saying that he'll eventually sleep with so many men that "you won't know until the end of your life which ones were your greatest lovers and which ones were your greatest friends." The fact that sex is degraded from sacred unity between a husband and wife to spare-moment pastime shared by strangers. The fact that in Milk, it's pretty much assumed there's no escape from giving in to the impulse to fulfill needs of the spirit with desires of the flesh.
In a sentence or two, Milk presents hurting people thrashing about for peace and acceptance. And it suggests that God and His people are the source of their pain.