Photo credit: Phill Bray / Focus Features
It’s hard to take an objective look at a film whose story is
not just familiar but iconic to its audience. It’s even harder when that story
has already been told in a groundbreaking documentary, and harder still if some
of the film’s audience actually lived through its events.
That Gus Van Sant’s Milk transcends all those factors
and looks to be one of the best films of the year is a testament to the power
of its story as well as the creative forces that came together to tell it.
Most LGBT people probably know the bare bones of Harvey
Milk’s story already: That he helped spearhead the fight against a tidal wave
of anti-gay legislation that swept the country as part of Anita Bryant’s
anti-gay crusade; that he advocated coming out as the most powerful weapon
against homophobia; that he was shot to death by a political opponent after
predicting his own assassination.
But one of often-forgotten pieces of Harvey’s story was his commitment to building
bridges with every possible group that might be an ally in his struggle. He
made a friend out of organized labor by getting Coors beer out of San Francisco’s gay bars.
He reached out to all communities of color and ethnic groups in the state. He
was an ex-hippie turned businessman who could and would talk to anyone –
including his fiercest enemies – if he thought it would further his cause.
And at a time when the gay and lesbian communities were almost
completely isolated from each other, when women held virtually no leadership
roles in the gay rights movement and our communities were often actively
hostile towards each other, Harvey Milk not only reached out to women’s
organizations, he brought in a 22-year-old lesbian named Anne Kronenberg to run
his fourth campaign for office – the first one, in fact, that he ever won.
Played by fresh-faced Canadian actress Alison Pill (The Book of
Daniel), we first meet Anne when she marches into
Harvey’s camera store on Castro St. to be introduced to his
campaign staff. They’re speechless at first, while Harvey can barely hide his amusement.
“Who the heck is she?” one of the men blurts out.
tells them she’s his new campaign manager, and they react badly. One of them
even suggests she’s a spy for Milk’s gay opponent, Rick Stokes.
“My girlfriends say you guys don’t like women,”
Anne says. “Just asking, is there a place for us in all of this, or are
you scared of girls?”
Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg
Photo credit: Phil Bray/Focus Features
That single scene is just one example of how much
screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Big Love)
can say with very few words. Rather than being constrained by the real life
events and people in his story, he’s inspired by them. Every introduction of
historical footage, every near-verbatim quote or speech, is rooted in one of
the film’s many personal moments, and amplified by those that follow.
Archival footage of Anita Bryant is particularly devastating
in its effect.
That footage is used in telling the story of the fight
against Prop 6, a 1978 California
ballot initiative that would have fired every gay or lesbian teacher in the
state, as well as anyone who advocated on their behalf. That battle’s resonance
with today’s struggle for LGBT equality is particularly eerie given it was
written and filmed before California’s
Prop 8 had even been proposed.