Milk: a new blend of politics

Gus Van Sant’s praising biopic captures the pioneering gay politician’s skillful mix of idealism and pragmatism.

David Berkley

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On 1 February, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became prime minister of Iceland, and in doing so became the world’s first gay head of government (openly at least – the jury is still out on Ted Heath). Thirty-one years earlier, Harvey Milk became the United States’ first openly gay elected official when he was voted on to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The title of city councillor may carry less prestige and power than that of prime minister, but Milk is regarded as a trail-blazer and a martyr in the gay community, and his untimely death and colourful life and career make the Hollywoodisation of Milk’s story something of an inevitability. Enter Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn.

It is interesting and perhaps indicting that even when Hollywood places gay characters at the centre of its movies, it is invariably a straight actor who is called upon to play the role. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, and River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho (an early Van Sant film): all completed the job with differing degrees of success. And now we have Penn as Harvey Milk.

It seems gay actors are only fit to play that rom-com staple ‘the gay best friend’, and any gay character with a modicum of depth goes to a straight actor. Mind you, maybe the gay acting talent just isn’t out there. John Barrowman as Harvey Milk anyone?

In Milk, this is something of a moot point, as Sean Penn successfully embodies the flamboyant quirks and mannerisms of a somewhat stereotypical gay man without resorting to cliché or compromising the character’s individuality. In the process, he delivers a vibrant performance that makes him just about the leading contender for this year’s best actor Oscar, although I would personally give it to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (see Wrestling with the contradictions of fame, by David Berkley).

Milk’s life only really became interesting at the age of 40, which is appropriately where Milk picks it up. Attracted by the flourishing countercultural scene in San Francisco at the start of the 1970s, Milk and his toyboy lover Scott (played here by Heath Ledger lookalike James Franco, the masculine counterpoint to Penn’s camp flamboyance) swap coasts from their native New York. Eastside, Milk had been playing out a directionless and closeted life working in insurance. In Frisco, he sets up a camera shop in the Castro district.

Milk plays a pivotal role in transforming the working-class Castro into a burgeoning gay quarter, a haven for queers who have escaped their oppressing and depressing hometowns for the bright lights of the west coast. More by accident than design, he falls into politics in order to represent the people of the Castro who have come to see him as something approaching a father figure. He soon gets a taste for the political fight however, and persistence pays off when Milk is finally elected to public office at the fourth attempt in 1978. The film then follows Milk’s high-profile opposition to the homophobic Proposition Six, and his struggle to maintain a voice on the city board without compromising his ideals, which leads to tension with Dan White, a more conservative city supervisor.

Milk’s political work is always at odds, yet somehow in tandem with, the direct action that many of his younger cohorts instinctively tend towards. ‘Elections are just a bourgeois affectation’, sneers one such eloquent and uppity whippersnapper, Cleve Jones, before succumbing to recruitment by Milk’s campaign machine. Perhaps Milk’s greatest triumph was to succeed in neither obliterating this instinctual anger towards more direct action, nor letting it run riot (literally). Milk managed to find a way to channel the righteous rage of the oppressed minority into both the democratic process and into direct action in the form of marches and demonstrations, without letting it spill over into violence.

A good riot may let off some steam, but it does not necessarily endear your cause to the mainstream, or so the theory goes. In this respect Milk portrays its eponymous character as both a pragmatist and an effective metaphorical tightrope-walker, finding just the right balance between these twin yet opposing strategies in order that they may complement each other as a unified strategy to further a single goal.

Lest we need reminding, another leader from an oppressed minority has also recently been elected to public office in the United States. The African-American civil rights struggle used a similar two-pronged approach to achieve its successes. However, the comparisons between Harvey Milk and Barack Obama do not stretch much beyond this. Milk was elected almost solely on the votes of the limited demographic of the Castro, comprised almost entirely of the minority that he represented; Obama was elected by people from just about every social group you can imagine.

Nevertheless, in showing us the problems Milk was forced to confront and the compromises he was forced to make on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk reminds us of the difficulties that lie in wait for anyone elected to represent the interests of a minority group or who runs on a single-issue ticket.

Milk is not without its faults. In concentrating so much on the political struggle of Milk and his followers, there is a sense in which the narrative of Milk’s clash with Dan White is overlooked, so that the ending, without wanting to give too much away, comes perhaps as more of a surprise than it should to anyone who doesn’t already know the story. There is however a whole other story surrounding this narrative that would merit a film in itself (though perhaps a sequel would be Milking It). To begin to include that story would, perhaps, have risked making Milk over-cluttered.

As it is, I recommend listening to San Francisco punk band the Dead Kennedys excellent re-working of ‘I Fought the Law’ (1) to fill in the gaps, if you can decipher the lyrics. Whether you agree or not, Milk is an affirmation of political activism.

David Berkley is a former intern at spiked.

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