In Focus Features' new Harvey Milk
biopic film an epic battle to save gay rights is fought between gay
activists and church-backed forces – in California. Sound
“If this thing passes, fight the hell
back!,” Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly elected gay man,
played by Sean Penn, says in Milk.
Back then, in 1978, it was Proposition
6 – also known as the Briggs Initiative – a ballot measure backed
by singer Anita Bryant that sought to expel gay and lesbian teachers
from California schools.
But Proposition 6 died at the polls.
(Then-Governor Ronald Reagan said he was opposed to taking away
And Proposition 8 – the California
measure that constitutionally bans gay marriage – passed by a slim
Grassroots gay activists and their
allies who have been protesting the passage of Proposition 8 since the
day after Election Day are certain to find solace in Milk's
narrative that so closely mirrors their own modern-day crusade –
save for the happy ending.
Expectations over the film's Wednesday
start are stratospheric, as the film raises the visibility of the gay
rights movement to an unprecedented level. Proposition 8-related
vigils have already occurred at prerelease screenings of the film in
San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“The film is about activism and
perseverance,” Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality
California, a group that lead the fight against Proposition 8, told
Variety. “Milk lost the first two elections he ran and he
sacrificed a lot. The film brilliantly explores the need to expand
the base of people who support equality. Harvey Milk knew he was
running on a whole bunch of social-justice issues. That's important
for moving forward.”
But for some of the people involved in
the events of 1978, emotional scars remain.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein
found Harvey Milk's body after he and San Francisco Mayor George
Moscone had been gunned down by Dan White, who opposed the gay
initiatives championed by Milk. Feinstein, who became mayor after
the incident, recently told The New York Times that watching
the film might be too difficult.
“It's very painful for me,” she
said. “It took me seven years before I could sit in George
Moscone's chair. It took me a long time to talk about it. I was
only recently able to talk about it.”
Feinstein's support for gay marriage in
California – she starred in an a pro-gay marriage ad – may now be a
possible liability as she looks to a 2010 bid for governor of the
“I think people are beginning to look
at it differently, I know it's happened for me,” Feinstein said of
gay marriage. “I started out not supporting it. The longer I've
lived, the more I've seen the happiness of people, the stability that
these commitments bring to a life. Many adopted children who would
have ended up in foster care now have good solid homes and are
brought up learning the difference between right and wrong. It's a
very positive thing.”
The whole notion that a movie about
gays and lesbians overcoming the odds and a burgeoning gay
rights movement finding hope and inspiration in an awkward politician
in California being released by a major Hollywood studio just weeks
after a major gay rights loss is certain to feel like destiny to many
fighting in the trenches for gay rights.
And that might just be inspiration