Saturday, December 26, 2009


I wrote in an earlier entry that I feel that Milk should've won Best Picture last year over Slumdog Millionaire, and I won't beat a dead horse. I don't have anything against Slumdog; I just don't think it's nearly as weighty or timeless as Milk. I also realize that my connection to Gus Van Sant's biopic about slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk is largely personal and biases my judgment.

I moved to San Francisco in 2003, renting a flat with two roommates in a quiet neighborhood called Noe Valley, which borders the infamous Castro district (in fact, one of my cross streets was Castro). San Francisco is essentially run by a mayor and 11 city supervisors. My new address was in the same district Milk represented during his term in the late 70's.

In February of 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsome legalized gay marriage in San Francisco. Sure, he didn't have the authority to do this, and it was largely a political stunt, but it's hard to quantify how it energized the denizens of The City. One day during those few weeks, Eileen and I were driving through The City, and we began to get frustrated with what seemed like an unexplainable traffic jam. After 10 minutes or so, our exasperation turned to elation when we saw what was causing the hold up- we were nearing City Hall. The same steps where Harvey Milk had given rabble-rousing speeches 25 years earlier were now filled with a line of gay couples, many dressed for the occasion and holding signs, waiting to finally have their love legally acknowledged inside that beautiful building.

I honked the horn, and Eileen rolled down the window and yelled "Congratulations!" Many of those in line waved back, smiles lighting up their faces. Perhaps it's hard to relate, but this was one of the most purely happy moments of my life. For that one instant, all the old prejudices and ugliness died away, and all that remained was joy and love. Even when the state stopped and invalidated the marriages, everyone who'd been around those events had something that perhaps they hadn't felt before: Hope. Harvey's legacy lived on.

In 2006, I moved in with Eileen, at the top of the hill in the Castro. For the first time in my life, I was a minority of sorts; there were far more gay people in my building and neighborhood than straights (or "breeders," as we're sometimes derisively called).

The news that renowned director Gus Van Sant was bringing A-list star Sean Penn to the Castro in order to portray Milk's life on film had the neighborhood buzzing. The Castro got a facelift: The area's landmark, the struggling Castro theatre, was remodeled in a vintage 70's style for authenticity. Other businesses agreed to be superficially transformed with older signs and window dressings while posting notices (taken down during actual filming) that informed passers-by that yes, this was still, in fact, "The Sausage Factory." Only in The Castro is that the local pizza joint's name.

For a few months in early 2008, you never knew when you'd be detoured around Castro street, night or day. It never bothered me much. I loved movies, and now one was being made in my own backyard. One night, as I was coming home from playing softball across town, they were filming the scene where Emile Hirsch's character addresses the angry mob. I parked a couple blocks away and got out, hoping to watch film history. Instead, I nearly got frostbite while watching a bunch of 10-second takes that only involved extras. I saw the top of Van Sant's head at one point and called it a night.

The film would've had to be dreadful for it to be a disappointment for me. On the contrary, it's mostly everything that I hoped it would be. I give it a lot of credit for not shying away from Milk's sexual appetite and not depicting him as a politically correct saint (he affectionately refers to Diego Luna's character as "Taco"). Josh Brolin is great as Milk's assassin, fellow supervisor Dan White. Van Sant's inter-splicing of old newsreels with new footage lends the film a documentary feel. It's a fascinating window into San Francisco history.

Then there are the political implications. The movie's central battle (and eventual gay rights victory) is about a state ballot initiative, Proposition 6. Unbelievably, Prop 6 sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California's public schools, with the possible power to dismiss those who supported them as well. It's nearly unfathomable to believe that this happened as recently as 1978, or that it would've passed without the mobilization of thousands of gay activists who chose to come out to their families, friends, and communities in order to show that gays were already valued members of society, not deviants and pedophiles, as the bill implied.

Of course, the movie came out just as the most recent controversy over gay rights flared up, with the state Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage and the subsequent ratification of Prop 8, which took it back. This was obviously a huge setback for civil rights (to read my feelings about it, click here), and a movie can't make that all go away.

Students sometimes ask me why I mark them down for saying something they don't like is "gay" or calling each other "fag." If I'm not gay, why do I care?

Well, I wasn't around in the 60's. I didn't get to protest segregation or the Vietnam war. This is my generation's civil rights battle, and in many ways it's the final frontier of the war. Movies like Milk show that those still battling gay rights are swimming upstream against the current of history.

Harvey Milk understood that 30 years ago. He knew as long as you can give people one thing, they would never truly give up. Had he been alive to see the passage of Prop 8, I think he would've shrugged, pointed to the increasingly frequent legalization of gay marriages all around the world, and repeated his signature line:

You gotta give 'em hope.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A

PS: For another excellent take on this film from the fascinating perspective of someone who was once on the other side, check out my colleague Joel Swett's blog.


Jerry Pritikin said...

There is a web-site, dedicated to the evolution of the Castro, and the S.F. gay rights movement in the 70's, however, unlike the "Milk" movie... it's the real events as remembered by the pioneers...and not a recreation. I recommend that you visit I knew Harvey, and almost everyone portrayed in the movie, and photographed most of them, and the events of those times.

shakira said...

there is a pizza place in pleasanton called "gay nineties."