I’ve never found Sean Penn attractive. Shocking, I know, but all that brooding intensity is completely wasted on me, I’m afraid. Five minutes into Milk, however, as I watch him seduce the entirely-too-pretty James Franco in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a silly grin and a pick up line so tired they should shoot it to put it out of its misery, I suddenly got the hype.
It’s one of the many ways in which Penn so perfectly inhabits the character of Harvey Bernard Milk, the closeted insurance salesman from New York who became a gay rights activist, the first openly gay elected official in California and a symbol of hope for the LGBT community in the 1970s.
From the moment he bumps into Scott Smith (Franco), his lover for many years and a friend upto his assassination in 1978, in Milk, we’re constantly reminded that this is not a man who is conventionally handsome and is way too old to be deemed attractive in the gay scene he inhabits. But with his salesman charm and the sweetest smile you ever saw, his is a charisma that cannot be denied.
As the movie clips briskly along, you see him transform from the timid New York native who counsels the young Smith to be careful where he goes cruising to the man who openly makes out with his lover on the streets of San Francisco. On the other side of the continent from his old life and the fears that came with it, Harvey Milk is a man on a mission: forget bigotry, even mere tolerance will no longer do; he wants to be respected, openly acknowledged by the establishment (or as he prefers to call it, The Machine) for who he is.
That’s some dream for a man who can’t even get the gay establishment to back him, much less the larger Machine, which sends police officers with their badges covered to crack down on gay bars in the most brutal way possible. Although Milk and his avant garde friends revitalize his San Francisco neighborhood by making it gay friendly (now the preferred gentrification process in cities all over the United States), they are still at the mercy of the cops and bureaucrats who could care less.
As the neighborhood around Castro Street continues to attract more affluent people and its economy expands through the 1970s, the police continue their assault on the gay community… and pretty soon, Harvey Milk finds his soapbox. Although his political candidacy takes a while to find its wings, Milk is already the voice of the Castro and the gay community. He dubs himself the Mayor of Castro Street and the term catches on with the wider public.
But being the Mayor of Castro Street is far from a glamour job – it takes a toll on his personal life, and his political life continues to hammer around the fringes. Things finally come around for him, politically speaking, when the city allows each district to elect its own supervisor instead of following the citywide model it’d followed previously. In 1978, Harvey Milk is the first supervisor elected from the Castro District under the new rules.
It was going to be an interesting year, to say the least.
If director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black had set out to merely chronicle the life and evolution of a charismatic activist, Milk would still have been a pretty entertaining movie. But they have managed to make a movie about a lot more than that.
The first thing that strikes you about Milk, for instance, is its subtle aura of danger. Long before the assassination threats, crudely drawn on notepaper, show up the movie has made it clear that there is a deep psychological element to being gay that outsiders may never understand or, indeed, have thought about – fear.
It’s not just the fear of outing (something, by the way, that Harvey Milk wasn’t opposed to as long as it served the larger cause). It is the fear of violence, that one day out of the blue someone who doesn’t know you but doesn’t approve of your sexuality might be moved to violence by your mere existence. They might beat you, maim you, sexually assault you, even kill you. And when you are found or your remains are found or your disappearance is reported, nobody will care because the general feeling might be that you simply got what was coming to you.