Photo By Harvey Levine
It's days after the American election, and you can sense the tension. In the wake of California's passage of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, the blogosphere - and a rally at Silver Lake in West Hollywood - is clogged with gay activists furious that a whack of black and Latino voters supporting President-elect Barack Obama could have voted against gays' right to marry.
Many black activists, on the other hand, think comparing America's systemic racism to the right to marry trivializes black experience.
Harvey Milk's brand of leadership is exactly what California needs right now. He was a hugely effective bridge builder, connecting gay men and lesbians, who lived in quite separate communities at that time, and creating coalitions between his natural gay constituency and seniors and Chinese Americans.
"He pulled together that coalition - the lesbian community and the women's rights community - and he crossed a lot of boundaries," says Alison Pill, who plays Milk's campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg.
Milk would have scoffed at the strategy used by opponents of Proposition 8. They tried to make the time-honoured claim that denying one group's civil rights threatens the civil rights of everyone. This time around, that argument fell flat on its mostly white face.
By contrast, Milk, as Gus Van Sant's biopic makes clear, believed that in order to defeat 1978's Proposition 6, which tried to prevent gays from teaching in public schools, gays had to come out of the closet.
"You see in the film how this was completely different from what Prop 8 opponents tried here," says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. "It helps people understand how we beat these things. We had to say, ‘I'm the guy who's getting hurt.' There's a bravery in the idea that if they know you, they're not going to vote against you."
Don't expect Hollywood to take the lead on that one, says Josh Brolin, who plays Milk assassin Dan White.
"You still have gay actors who are in the closet because they don't want to be perceived as gay actors," he says. "That's still a messy thing."
Whatever your approach to political change, the film does offer a timely glimpse of gay history.
"While we were shooting in the Castro, I realized that gay people in their 20s living there had never heard of Harvey Milk," notes Pill. "There's a huge section of history my generation is missing. I was born in 85 and I didn't know that being gay was an issue. I just knew that some of my friends liked guys and they were also guys.
"But I'm grateful that Milk gives us a chance to know our history in order to deal with the future."
Franco on why Harvey Milk would have mattered now
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black talks about how Milk's political strategies differed from those used to fight Prop 8