Sunday, February 1, 2009


I saw Gus van Sant's Milk last night. This is one excellent film. I've read Randy Shilts' account of Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, several times over the years (my copy is currently packed away in a box). I've also seen the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, several times as well. So, as far as story goes I pretty much knew what to expect.

What I didn't expect was the excellence of this film. Van Sant has done a superb job. The film unfolds through use of flashbacks, occasionally flashbacks within flashbacks. It artfully intertwines news and other film footage from the time within the movie giving an amazing sense of presence, of conveying what is was like in San Francisco back in the '70s. Van Sant is also supported by a magnificent cast. Sean Penn lives Harvey Milk, he is Milk onscreen. But the rest of the cast are excellent, too. Some have an uncanny resemblance to the characters they play, a fact brought home at the film's conclusion which relates what became of each of the film's main characters after Milk's assassination. Photos of the film person morph into the photos of the real person. Josh Brolin almost channels Dan White. Emil Hirsch as Cleve Jones and James Franco as Scott Smith do likewise with their characters. Hirsch is just brilliant portraying the young queen, Jones, who gets politicised and becimes himself a movement leader. Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg was similarly convincing. And finally Diego Luna as Jack Lira turns in a devastating performance.

The film also brings to life the solidarity of the SF queer communities of those days. There are many scenes of marches and rallies often intercut with footage of the actual events (but sadly not of the White Night riots, following the lenient sentencing of Dan White on the basis of the notorious Twinkie defence). It shows how mobilised queer folks became . As Harvey Milk himself says, "I am not a candidate, I am part of a movement. The movement is the candidate." The strength and solidarity of that movement then are really brought to life in this film. Indeed it highlights both how important it was for us to mobilise and build a movement in the struggle against homophobia and also how crucial it was to build alliances. Milk helped organise a boycott of Coors beer in the gay bars to support the local Teamsters union during their industrial dispute with that company. The Teamsters eventually won and went on to support industrial rights of LGBT people in San Francisco.

All LGBT folk should see this film because it really is the first major Hollywood film treatment of our histories and our lives and it reminds us of the struggles of the past and how they were won. But in its portrayal of the struggles of the SF queer communities 30 years ago, the film deserves to be seen by straight as well as queer folks. It's a reminder to everyone of how important solidarity, organising, mobilisation are in struggling to achieving social change, in shiftiing, even a little bit, the axis of power towards a more just dynamic. It does this, refreshingly, without romanticising its characters or lapsing into the dread American habit of indulging in schmaltz. I knew the story and how it would turn out and so brought along the tissues just in case. But I didn't need them at all. For me that underscores the real power of this film.

So do yourselves a favour, as Molly Meldrum used to say, and get along to Milk. You won't be sorry.


  1. Hi Michael
    Thanks for the review, I wanted to see the film as I love Sean Penn's work, I will definitely get along to see it with all your other comments in mind. Maggie

  2. Well worth a visit to the cinema. My thoughts at: Harvey Milk: fighting for their lives Hope it does well at the academy awards!