I attended a screening of "Milk" last night put together by the Courage Campaign
, and wanted to give some thoughts on it. (Though it's a familiar story, there are some spoilers below.)
The film itself is superb. I wasn't sure if it could reach the heights of the excellent Rob Epstein documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," winner of the Best Documentary Oscar in 1984, but it got very close. The use of archival footage and the location shooting entirely in San Francisco (they used the exact same storefront to recreate Milk's "Castro Camera" shop that became a hangout/political office at the time) gives it a vérité quality, and the performances are so first-rate and natural. Sean Penn's performance as Milk is ascendant, reflecting all of his persistence and joy as well as his human frailty. Milk was in the closet until he was 40, and that denial of self ("I haven't done one thing that I'm proud of") propelled him to live the rest of his life as a perpetual motion machine, constantly engaged in activism. He pushed those in his orbit to come out, to show up, to claim their rights and take back their democracy, saying "They'll vote for us 2 to 1 if they know one of us." And yet one of the first political acts he undertakes after setting up shop in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood is partnering with the Teamsters to boycott Coors beer for refusing to sign a union contract. Eventually, after a successful boycott, the Teamsters began to hire openly gay truck drivers. Milk was an activist and part of a movement for human rights, but also a pretty shrewd political actor.
Obviously, the headlines of California's passage of Proposition 8 loom heavily on the film. And there are a few things to take away from that. First of all, Milk lost. A lot. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973. He lost. He ran again in 1975. He lost again. He ran for state Assembly against Art Agnos. He lost. Then in 1977, the board of supervisors ran district elections instead of a citywide slate. And then he won. Setbacks just made him more determined to continue the fight, both in the streets and through the political process. He could have given up at any time, for his own sanity and the stability of his love relationship (his partner and erstwhile campaign manager leaves him, not wanting to go through another campaign). And once elected, he immediately sought to pass a gay rights law, trying to bait the religious right to put up a referendum in the city (eventually they offered Prop. 6, the Briggs Amendment, which would have allowed the state to fire teachers for being gay or even TEACHERS WHO SUPPORTED THEIR GAY COLLEAGUES). The point is that you keep showing up and fighting, never settling for the way things are. The setbacks didn't end the movement, they awakened it.
That's a pretty good lesson. So is this. During the Prop. 6 campaign, Milk met with the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly to go over campaign literature. They didn't feature any gay men or women, instead framing the issue as one of human rights. They refused to show the face of the discrimination. Milk raged against the flyers, and was told to keep it down, that the country wasn't ready to accept an issue about gay rights, that the human rights angle would be more palatable.
Does that sound familiar?
Milk didn't buy it, instead offering to debate Sen. John Briggs anywhere, anytime, throughout the state, presenting himself as a gay man arguing against the extreme measure, as the face of someone much like those who would be harmed by it. Prop. 6 lost, 65-35. Thirty years later we never learned this lesson, and the next time marriage equality comes up for a vote that simple fact, that you have to tell people who they'd be voting for and who they'd be voting against, not with abstraction, cannot be overlooked.
Finally, what cannot be forgotten is that the 1978 election which defeated the discriminatory Prop. 6 was the same election that passed Prop. 13, which slashed property taxes and required a 2/3 vote in the legislature to raise any taxes in the state (and for any special taxes in municipalities). This symbol of the tax revolt on the 1980s has caused 30 years of perpetual budget crisis in California, a virtual destruction of state government. This is undiscussed in Milk, but the idea that all of these assaults on functional government and respect for rights are connected, that what impacts seniors and working people and minorities and the LGBT community are in many ways the same, is a part of the movie and of Milk's life. Only by working together on all of the relevant issues, across groups, across ethnic and class boundaries, will we ever be able to withstand this assault and create a more decent society. The next few years of crisis offers a moment to harness the creativity and activism that has expanded over the past few years and unite those marginalized or traditionally shut out of the conversations in Washington, to bring grassroots movements forward. I believe the legacy of Harvey Milk, 30 years later, is still being formed.
Labels: activism, California, gay marriage, gay rights, Harvey Milk, movies, progressive movement, Prop. 13, Prop. 8