By John Norris
Add one letter to "MLK," and what do you get? That's right — "Milk."
And rightly so. Harvey Milk is the middle-age mensch from New York who moved to San Francisco, opened a camera shop and set about changing the world. The first openly gay elected official in America became a martyr in 1978, when he, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was gunned down by a deeply disturbed colleague. Milk has earned his place alongside those other M's: Martin, Malcolm and Mandela. And if you have a problem with that — if you think that gay rights are something apart from other civil-rights struggles — I suggest you see the movie "Milk." I'll front you the 10 bucks.
This long-overdue dramatization of the life of a hero who so richly deserves it is opening now, against the backdrop of the passage of California's rights-stripping Proposition 8 — and on the 30th anniversary of Milk's death — is the sort of surreal convergence of events that only a screenwriter could dream up. (Milk's story was also told in 1984's excellent documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk.") A screenwriter, say, like Dustin Lance Black, who grew up a closeted gay kid in a Mormon (yikes!) military (2X yikes!) family in Texas (3X yikes!), who says he himself might have become another statistic — having contemplated suicide in his teen years — had he not been inspired by the words and story of Harvey Milk. Today, Black is watching as a script he shepherded for years has been realized as a major film generating major buzz, due in large part to the soaring performance of its star.
Sean Penn's complete embodiment of Harvey Milk — nailing the drive, the guts and the charm that made him "The Mayor of Castro Street" — is a no-brainer Oscar nomination as Best Actor. But I think almost an equal lock for a Best Supporting Actor nod is Emile Hirsch, whose lovable-smartass portrayal of Harvey's protégé Cleve Jones, fey but not too much, is an astounding transformation. And it doesn't end there. The entire supporting cast — Josh Brolin, James Franco (doing some of his finest, warmest work ever), Alison Pill, Diego Luna, Joseph Cross, Lucas Grabeel, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare — is a dream team.
And if any of those people are the reason you go see it, great. But do go see it. What would be a shame is if this powerful, important movie did not get seen beyond its immediate audience. Because those aren't the people that need to know about Harvey. It's people who are too young to remember him. As much as anyone, you are who this movie was made for. Consider its director, Gus Van Sant — from Indietown, USA: Portland — who, far from being part of any gay mainstream, has actually spent a good part of his career celebrating outsiders (hustlers, junkies, skaters, rock stars, disaffected types) looking for a way out. "Milk" is a biopic — an atypical film for Van Sant — but there are "Gus touches" throughout it. None more so than a scene in which Harvey receives a phone call from a kid in Minnesota who's thinking of ending it because his parents are going to send him to be "reprogrammed." Milk talks him out of it.
And for Harvey Milk, that's what meant the most. His political successes aside — some say he would have been San Francisco mayor one day, or more — Harvey was about giving young gay people a reason not to despair. There's a reason that New York's high school for gay, lesbian and transgender students is named for him. If most teen and twentysomething gay people live lives in 2008 more accurately described as "post-gay" — more likely to have straight friends, hang out in mixed crowds, believe in thinking united and not apart — that's because many of them have a lot less reason to fear harassment, abuse and discrimination than they would have 30 years ago. Back then, gay Americans were most definitely "the other." It was a monumental struggle that was only beginning, and Harvey Milk was on the front lines. Months before his death, anticipating his possible assassination, a somber Harvey recorded an audio will, which was beautifully re-created by Sean Penn in the film. His last words on it were: "Last week I got that phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And my election gave one more person hope. After all, that's what it's all about. It's not about personal gain, it's not about ego, it's not about power. It's about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give 'em hope."