Milk is a surprisingly upbeat film about the life of gay activist Harvey Milk. This is surprising, given that Milk was assassinated at only 48 by a disgruntled political colleague. Milk, however, managed to fit a lot into his relatively short existence and the film celebrates his life as much as his death.
The film starts with 40-year-old Milk working as an insurance salesman in New York. Still relatively closeted, he is spurred to change when he meets the much younger Scott Smith (James Franco) and decides to move to San Francisco with him. There they open a camera shop in the burgeoning Castro district and Milk becomes heavily involved in the emerging gay rights movement, firstly merely as an activist and then as a politician. He is finally elected as a City Supervisor and it is in this role that he meets his future killer, the angry and unstable Dan White.
The opening credits show genuine footage of a gay bar in the early Sixties being raided by police and its well-dressed, mostly middle-aged clientele being herded into police vans. From here on, the gay community’s struggle to achieve even basic human rights is angrily but articulately depicted. Milk became involved in the battle against Proposition 6, which would have made it possible for gay teachers and other public workers to be fired on the basis of their orientation. It is a depressing fact that even as this movie was opening in the States, gay couples’ right to marry was being repealed in California.
Sean Penn gives a winning performance as Milk and he is ably supported by the rest of the cast - in particular by Emile Hirsch as the irrepressible campaigner Cleve Jones. It’s a credit to Josh Brolin’s talents that he is able to win some sympathy from us for Dan White.
Milk could have been a very depressing experience but here Gus Van Sant and his writer Dustin Lance Black have created a joyful tribute to Harvey Milk’s life that is truly moving.