Published on
the Daily News (Los Angeles)

'Milk' Relevant to Today's Politics

Greg Hernandez

For anyone who's old enough to remember, the current uprising against the passage of California's Proposition 8 mirrors something that happened 30 years ago: In 1978, San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk led a crusade against the state's Proposition 6, a measure that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools.

A movie about his successful fight - and subsequent murder - are the focus of the upcoming feature film "Milk," starring Sean Penn in a performance that is already generating lots of Oscar talk.

The film hits theaters less than a month after California voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, which overturned the legalization of same-sex marriages in the state.

Plenty of Proposition 8 opponents have been wondering aloud in recent weeks what would have happened if "Milk," out in limited release on Nov. 26 (the day before the 30th anniversary of Milk's assassination), had instead been released in the weeks leading up to the election.

Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), saw "Milk" at its premiere in San Francisco a few weeks ago and said of the film's potential impact: "When audiences get to know someone who is gay or lesbian and is portrayed in a fair, accurate and inclusive way, hearts and minds are changed ... Regardless of how you feel about gay people or marriage for same-sex couples, it's wrong to treat anyone differently under the law and prevent same-sex couples from taking care of each other.

"Nonviolent demonstrations seen in the film and over the past week inspire the LGBT community and can impact change."

So could a pre-election day release of "Milk" have helped to stave off passage of the measure with its message? Could it have offset the influence of the steady stream of "Yes on 8" commercials that flooded the airwaves for months?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But Focus Features, which is distributing the Gus Van Sant-directed film, could hardly have been expected to move up its release date to try to sway voters in the fight against Proposition 8. This is show "business," remember?


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Co-producer Dan Jinks points out that the movie was planned and in production before the California Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on gay marriage last spring, so its release date in proximity to the vote is simply a coincidence.

"The most important thing as we were talking about making this movie ... was that an audience would see it," Jinks said. "And if all that buzz helps put bodies in seats and helps create an interest beyond what will be the core audience for this movie, that's what we're hoping for, that's what our great dream is."

Box office aside, it seems clear that there is still much that can be learned from "Milk" and its unmistakable parallels to today's political landscape.

"The echoes have been so profound as to how much has changed from 1978 to today and how much is the same," said co-producer Bruce Cohen, who was married to Gabriel Catone in June by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "We're hoping that people will really appreciate that and understand it and that it will open everyone up to think of all the work that we have in front of us. I think politics will still be very much on people's minds when the movie comes out. Most people don't know the story and don't know anything about the politics of 1978 so it will be really exciting to see people learn this whole new era."

For "Milk" screenwriter Justin Lance Black, Proposition 8's passage has turned him into an activist who last week launched "Seven Weeks to Equality." In a widely published editorial, he called for a nationwide campaign of mass protests and nonviolent civil disobedience for seven weeks - beginning Nov. 27 and culminating in a mass gathering on Jan. 20 to honor the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

"There are rare moments in human history when, suddenly and unexpectedly, the opportunity for great change and progress becomes possible," Black wrote. "Obama has shown us the power of hope and the urgency of seizing that moment. `Milk' has shown us the power we possess when we make our voices heard."

Black said in an interview that he hopes people will draw inspiration from the movie just as he drew inspiration from the man as he began writing the script four years ago.

"Getting to know him posthumously through all of his friends, through all of this research, was really profound, really deep," Black said.

"When I first heard about Harvey Milk, I was a closeted young guy from a very conservative home in Texas, and you get a little (despondent). You think about if it's really worth it to keep going. I was really lucky that we moved to the Bay Area and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. His message was one of hope, which we're hearing echoes of today."

--Greg Hernandez

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