Can anger make the world a better place? Usually we think of anger as a destructive force, but if you can harness it, you can turn it into a constructive force for good—as Harvey Milk discovered, both in the movie Milk and in real life.
Love: The Harsh History Lesson
The movie opens with real-life footage of men being arrested at gay bars. In the 1950s and ’60s, you could be arrested simply for being a queer person. There was virtually nothing you could do to fight back—and if you tried to fight back you’d be crushed. That changed in the late ’60s into the ’70s, with people coming out and having parades and organizing displays of queer power. Times were tough back then—and we forget how tough all too often.
Love: It’s a Primer for How to Harness Power
Milk was one of the first politicians to figure out that LGBT people have power, and how to use it. We didn’t have many political successes in the ’70s—notably losing a nondiscrimination ballot fight in Florida—but Harvey realized that in addition to throwing parades, we could also organize around a ballot. The movie beautifully captures his bravery and innovation. The film Milk serves as a sort of how-to document for organizing, as Milk changes from a laid-back merchant to an outraged community activist. “I know you’re angry!” he shouts in the movie. “I’m angry!”
Love: Its Inspiration of Future Activists
Just imagine what Milk could have accomplished if he’d lived longer—or was alive today. (He’d be in his late 80s.) Sadly, he was taken far too soon, but thanks to Gus Van Sant’s movie, his inspiration can live on. Life under the Trump regime is going to be rough for LGBTs, but we’re fortunate to have a film that reminds us that when times were rough in the past, we got angry, made noise and changed the world.
Hate: That We’re Still Dealing with This Stuff
It hurts to say, but the pain of Harvey Milk’s assassination doesn’t feel totally foreign to us. Forty years on, we still know what it’s like to lose important people and face painful opposition. To be sure, life has improved. Laws have gotten better. But there are still places in the country where queer people are afraid to come out and kids are persecuted, and it’s infuriating that that’s still the case.
Hate: The Invisibility of SF’s Queer Culture
There was a lot of amazing art and culture happening in San Francisco in the 1970s—and also a lot of fantastic sex. Alas, the movie shies away from this stuff, focusing instead of Milk’s life. Of course, that’s borne out of necessity, both budgetary and narrative. There simply isn’t time in the film for a detour down Polk Street, but it would have been nice to see a bit more of the sex and subversion that made gay culture great.
Hate: How Hard it Was to Make This Movie
It took over 15 years for the project to come to fruition, and at various times Robin Williams, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis and James Woods were attached. But throughout the ’90s, studio nervousness about depicting queer content held the project back. Hollywood is a super-gay industry, but the pervasive poison of the closet nearly killed this film. As it was, it came out at the perfect time: just one week before the passage of Proposition 8, inspiring a new generation of activism.