Milk: The Greatest Movie Not Enough Of Us Are Seeing

By L. K. Regan

Have you seen Milk, the bio-pic about murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk? After all, the movie is nominated for eight Academy Awards, and has been in theaters since November 2008. Still, it has earned only a little more than it cost to make, and is only showing in limited release. This is a movie that almost didn’t get made, and that not enough people are seeing. If you have the chance, we’d like to encourage everyone to get out to the theater to see it (and to help get you in the spirit, we’ve got videos!).

Milk stars Sean Penn as Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was murdered in City Hall, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, by fellow-supervisor Dan White. Harvey Milk was a pioneering gay-rights advocate, who substantially changed San Francisco’s anti-gay laws. Though White murdered Milk along with Mayor Moscone over a professional dispute, the subsequent trial can be viewed as a sham. Dan White defended himself on the grounds of derangement from excessive consumption of junk food—the so-called “Twinkie Defence”—and was convicted only of manslaughter, despite having committed the crime in apparent cold blood. Harvey Milk has long been seen, therefore, as a kind of gay martyr, whose death brought to the fore both the hoped-for future and real concerns of the gay rights movement.

To get you in the mood to see this remarkable film (and prep you for your Oscar party), here are some clips and interviews about the virtuosic acting in the movie, including Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Josh Brolin as Dan White, and Emile Hirsch as gay-rights activist Cleve Jones:

Milk the movie has been decades in the making, and almost didn't get made at all. In 1992, Robin Williams was contracted to play Harvey Milk in a big-screen adaptation of Randy Shilts’ biography The Mayor of Castro Street. That project was originally slated to be a huge production, with a 40 million dollar budget (which would be more like 60 million today) and a famous Hollywood director: Oliver Stone. Yet the project could never find a rhythm. Stone left the movie, to be followed by a long string of potential directors, including Gus Van Sant, who would eventually direct Milk. Other actors were bandied about as potential replacements for Robin Williams, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Richard Gere, and Kevin Kline. Multiple screenwriters had taken stabs at the script, resulting in some 20 different versions.

In the midst of this chaos, Van Sant left the project, dissatisfied with the script. "I dropped the ball that made my exit happen because I wasn't OK with the script I had helped on," he has said. "Robin was OK with it. Warner Bros. was OK with it. But I felt really nervous that we weren't getting the gusto of the community." Luckily, another script would come into his hands, this one written independently by a young, barely 30 year-old screenwriter named Dustin Lance Black. Black is a gay ex-Mormon who writes for the HBO show “Big Love”, which concerns a polygamous Mormon family. As a young man, Black was deeply inspired by Harvey Milk’s life and legacy, and developed the idea to write a movie about him.

In writing that movie, Black was determined not to be constrained by Hollywood's expectations. “It was really personal to me, so I just tackled it that way," he has said. "I didn't have any rules. I didn't have a 60 million dollar budget. I had whatever the credit limit on my card was. And all that frees you up. You can say Harvey Milk is having sex with [his boyfriend] Scott Smith, and these people can be having sex with each other and falling in love with each other. You can see what is going on in the Castro, and nobody is telling you no." Gus Van Sant has described Black’s writing effort, in taking on the subject that had defeated the best of Hollywood’s writers and directors, as “like David and Goliath”. And in fact, even as Milk began filming in San Francisco in 2006, the Mayor of Castro Street adaptation was planning to begin shooting simultaneously and in many of the same locations, setting up a potential David/Goliath showdown in the Castro. As it happened, however, Sean Penn was brought on board, and Milk the movie was peacefully completed on a mere 20 million dollar budget, even as the other Harvey Milk movie continued to languish.

For more about the making of Milk—from the script, to the challenges of filming on Castro Street, to the precise reconstruction of a past San Francisco—watch this featurette and get a feel for the film:

Given this dramatic and significant backdrop, one might expect Milk to have turned out the gay community in droves. Yet the movie has made only 23.5 million dollars in its couple of months on screens (though in limited release). The movie cost 20 million dollars to make, so the profit margin is low. To put it gently, we all want to see more movies about this kind of subject, intelligently and sensitively handled, with major actors. So, we all need to show up at the theater and vote with our feet. There’s still time before your Oscar party to get to the theater (if you live in a major city, where the picture is in limited release) and see this great film. Treat yourself to a night out!