Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece chronicles the personal life and career of the famous gay rights activist and San Francisco politician, Harvey Milk. Sean Penn delivers an inspiring, heartfelt, and captivating performance for the ages. For younger generations who are unaware of Milk’s achievements and the tragedy of his death, this film fills that knowledge gap. Subsequently, it can be eye opening.
In 1978, Milk became the first openly gay public official in California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This election came at a time of political upheaval in the city, as California Proposition 6, also known as the ‘Briggs Initiative,’ sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. Despite numerous political obstacles and violent acts against the gay community, Proposition 6 was struck down. The animosity felt by the gay community during this period in history is especially pronounced within the film.
Apart from the film’s theme of political turmoil, the relationship between Milk and his lover, Scott Smith, played by James Franco, demonstrates that no law, institution or individual can repress the love between two people. Moreover, their relationship highlights the obvious ups and downs that all couples experience, and it serves as the foundation for Milk’s dramatic purpose within the film. As the film progresses, we see the strength of their relationship tested time and again. But, it is their love for one another that ultimately guides Milk on his path to success. At several points throughout the film, the audience sees the intimate nature of their relationship.
In the first act, their love for one another is represented through Milk’s photographs of Smith. As the movie progresses and their characters develop, their love is demonstrated through their dinner conversations and campaign meetings. However, the final scene between Milk and Smith best illustrates the undying commitment these two individuals have for one another. It is in this moment that Milk realizes he has sacrificed his own happiness in his pursuit of justice.
Despite Milk’s tragic death, his legacy lives on through the city’s politically active, progressive, and eccentric culture. Whether it is through the comical absurdity of Bay to Breakers or the Gay Pride Parade, these are the manifestations that Milk and his supporters strived for. One can only imagine how different San Francisco would have been if Milk had not been elected. Van Sant’s melodrama embodies the historical undertones of this movement, and it is a refreshing perspective to view San Francisco through.