Review: Milk, Directed by Gus Van Sant, In cinemas nowThe day after the election of Barack Obama, thousands took to the streets of California to protest Proposition 8, a referendum which re-instituted a ban on same-sex marriage in the state.
Milk’s depiction of the gay rights movement in San Francisco in the 1970s—characterised by militant mass rallies, inspiring speeches and a determination to fight and win—could not have come at a more politically opportune time for American LGBTI rights activists.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to office in the United States, but he is remembered for more than just his sexual orientation.
His political career was inextricably linked to a fighting, grassroots movement for gay rights—one that understood the importance of the organised working class to achieving social change and one which refused to capitulate or compromise. Milk himself was at the more “pragmatic”, populist end of the movement’s political spectrum, and the film doesn’t shy away from depicting his occasional forays into opportunism. But Milk was held to account by a mass radical movement—the importance of which he never underestimated.
Harvey Milk recorded a statement about his life shortly before his assassination. The film takes us through Harvey’s life as he tells it: starting from his 40th birthday and last night as a closeted insurance clerk, through to his evolution to movement leader.
In 1972, Milk began his political activity through the formation of a gay shop-keepers’ association and lobby group. Quickly frustrated by the tip-toeing of the Democrats and the quiet lobbying of middle-class gays, and influenced by the political energy of the movement against the Vietnam war, Milk began to contest elections, campaigning on an openly left-wing civil rights basis. He made links with the trade union movement, organising a successful gay community boycott of the anti-union Corrs beer.
After several unsuccessful campaigns for both city and state assembly seats, Milk won a San Francisco supervisor seat in 1977, to a board of majority left-leaning community representatives. That year, gay activists in Miami, Florida were able to get a civil rights ordinance passed that made discrimination on the basis of sexuality illegal.
A far-right group of fundamentalist Christians responded, headed by singer Anita Bryant. The “Save the Children” campaign claimed that the civil rights ordinance “infringed on her right to teach her children Biblical morality.” The message was well-funded, influential and hugely successful. In an overwhelming defeat for the gay community, 70 per cent of the population in that area voted to repeal the ordinance.
The gains of the gay liberation movement were under threat. Similar laws were overturned by voters in Minnesota, Kansas and Oregon throughout 1977 and 1978. Conservative Senator John Briggs, hoping to be elected Governor of California in 1978, saw an opportunity. He drafted a bill that would ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools throughout California.
Harvey Milk was at the centre of the movement against what came to be known as the “Briggs Initiative” or “Prop 6”. A 250,000 strong Gay Freedom Day Parade was followed by mass meetings where Milk and other movement leaders took Briggs head on in debates about the Initiative. On November 7, 1978 Prop 6 lost by more than a million votes, a massive victory that astounded and inspired the movement. In San Francisco, 75 percent voted against, thanks to the organised force of the gay community and the trade unions.
Only a short time after the victory, Harvey Milk was assassinated by the one conservative on the San Fransisco Board, an act which was met by demonstrations across the US. When his killer, Dan White, was charged with manslaughter instead of murder, riots broke out across the country.
The film is a showcase of an inspirational time in US history—when LGBTI people and their supporters threw off the shackles of homophobia and demanded rights, respect, and freedom. As the campaign against Proposition eight and for marriage rights continues in the US, the historical lessons of Milk—that mass movements are both possible and necessary, that rights must be defended, and that true justice is won on the streets—point a way forward for today.
By Emma Tovell