Until watching this film, I had little knowledge about how Harvey Milk was. I knew he was an gay activist, he had a cool last name, and that was about it. I had no idea how complex his life was and his journey to activism. Milk (2008) shows Harvey Milk’s adult life and his career path to becoming a City Supervisor of San Francisco. The film depicts his few ups and many downs as a gay man trying to make a difference for his community in the 1970s. His determination and the support of his peers are what eventually lead him to a successful win of City Supervisor after running multiple times in a row. Even though Milk is a very kind, personable individual, he managed to piss off the wrong person, fellow city supervisor, Dan white who ends up killing Milk and his ally Mayor Moscone.
I thought the film started off a little odd and I did not really understand what was happening but as I got further in the film, I started to fall in love with it. Sean Penn plays Milk and the physical resemblance between the two is uncanny. James Franco play his long time partner, Scott Smith. When I first saw who was playing these roles, I felt a little weird because I thought they would lack chemistry but I actually really liked the two acting together.
Though I found myself being very emotionally invested in this film and I loved it, that does not mean the movie is not without its faults. It’s important to critically think through this film and analyze it deeply because it is portraying the life of an extremely important public figure and it needs to accurately honor his life.
One aspect of the film I found to be problematic was the fact that I was forgetting that I was watching a Hollywood film and not a documentary. I see this as problematic because the film could lead the audience to believe that everything it is showing is 100% accurate. Memory can be a tricky thing and biopic films have a way of almost creating false memory for the audience. The incorporation of real film from the 1970s makes it even more difficult to decipher between accurate history and man’s portrayal of what they think happened in history.
One major part of the film was the showing of real clips of Anita Bryant. Bryant was a religious radical determined to promote anti-gay ideals and state government policies towards gay individuals in the 1970s. She used her christian beliefs to promote hate which appealed to a lot of voting individuals back then. She made Milk’s job of activism and political policy making even harder because a lot of individuals were scared of what they didn’t understand. In the film, one of Milk’s goal was to prove that everyone knows and loves someone who is gay making different sexuality not so scary. He was trying to the prove the point that people are just people. This part of the film seemed amazing to me and seems extremely real but I have no way of knowing how accurate this part of the film was.
Movies have an interesting effect on memory, especially when it comes to biopics. Literature backs up the idea that films can cause a strain between the audience in the film by combining history and Hollywood. These ideas about memory are stated by Rich, 2013 and Erhart, 2o11. Films can create memories that can be inaccurate and people who haven’t even lived the experience.
I feel like this film has created false memories for me personally. I liked the film and I feel like I know part of Milk’s story but is what I know about Milk from this film doing him justice?
Erhart, J. 2011. The naked community organizer: Politics and reflexivity in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 26:1, 156-170
Rich, B. 2013. Got Milk? Gus Van Sant’s encounter with history. p. 236-260. Duke University Press.
Van Sant, G. (Director). 2008. Milk. United States: Focus Features.