"My name is Harvey Milk. And I'm here to recruit you."

The release of Milk, the new biopic on the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US, isn’t a story to be resigned to history. Gail Tolley discusses.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 13 Jan 2009

Milk has come at a pertinent time; despite the wave of optimism that followed the election of Barack Obama back in November, the issue of gay and lesbian rights has never been more significant. On voting day the people of California not only had the future president to think about, they also had the option of voting for or against proposition 8 – a proposition that proposed changing the Californian constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. 52% voted in favour of the proposition, effectively banning same-sex marriage just months after it had been made legal in the state.

The parallels with the story of how Harvey Milk struggled and eventually succeeded to become the first openly gay man elected to public office are evident. On one level the film highlights the successful steps that have been made towards the goal of achieving equality for gay and lesbian rights, yet on another (with proposition 8 sitting uncomfortably in the back of people’s minds) it serves to remind the audience of the challenges that lie ahead.

Gus Van Sant was perhaps the perfect director to bring what has for so long been a marginalised issue to the fore. His 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, featuring River Phoenix as a gay hustler, was viewed as a key film in the New Queer Cinema which emerged in the early 90s. Throughout his career he has straddled both the independent and mainstream film scenes creating such varied work as the conventional Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000) to the more experimental, European arthouse-influenced films such as Elephant (2003) which won him the Best Director and the Palme D’Or at Cannes.

Van Sant exhibits, more than anything, an understanding of the complexity of individuals; his sense of humanity, in stark contrast to the all-too-prevalent caricatures of Hollywood, is profound. This is shown at its best in his more recent works such as Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park and it is evident here, too, in Milk. There is a strong feeling that behind this film is the desire to bring Harvey Milk’s story to the mainstream (if its accessible nature is anything to go by) yet for all its conventions the story is sensitively told, inspirational in its content and while emotionally moving avoids descending into cliché. One particularly powerful image stands out – that of Harvey as he talks to a police officer following the beating and murder of his friend, reflected in the shiny surface of a whistle, which was carried by many gay men at the time to ward of homophobic attackers.

There’s always the risk, when making a film about gay men that women become written out of the picture and this is acknowledged in a scene where Anne Kronenberg is brought in to co-ordinate Harvey’s campaign, much to the surprise of some members of his team. It alludes to another story to be told, if not of lesbian rights in particular then of women’s rights in general.

Not surprisingly, Milk is in the running for the Academy Awards (it was produced by the same studios that made Brokeback Mountain) and it is likely to experience just as much buzz, something that should be celebrated. What Milk succeeds in doing is making the story of Harvey Milk feel like such a natural historical triumph that the recent results of proposition 8 seem embarrassingly antiquated. Hopefully audiences will feel the same way. In many ways Milk feels like an important film, and its timing couldn’t have been better.

Milk is released on 23 Jan.