November 29th, 2008
08:35 AM ET

The man who blew up America's closets

Andrew O’Hehir

For me and for anybody else who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, came as the second half of a traumatic double whammy - a regionally and culturally specific version of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. As I remember it, I was standing in the hallway outside the journalism office at Berkeley High School, talking to a couple of friends on the paper. (I was the editor.) We may well have been talking about stories we were working on in the aftermath of the so-called Jonestown massacre, the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 people, including quite a few with connections to our city and our school, that had happened just nine days earlier in the Guyanese jungle.

Someone came into the hall and told us what had just happened a few miles away, on the other side of the bay. A black-and-white TV was dragged out of the closet, plugged in and kicked around for a while until we could find a station. One of my friends took out a pencil and wrote on the wall: "11/27/78: Milk and Moscone just GOT SHOT!!" I guess he was blogging without knowing it. That scribble stayed there unmolested until after we graduated.

Thirty years later, almost to the day, and after a bewildering number of fits and starts with various directors and actors, the story of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk - a crucial strand, but not the only strand, in that chaotic autumn of 1978 - reaches us as a major feature film, with Sean Penn in the lead role and Gus Van Sant behind the camera. There are an awful lot of things to say about "Milk," and it's a film that, for anyone who knows the history of these events, will bump into a bunch of questions it isn't remotely equipped to answer.

"Milk" was never going to be just another movie, and in a season marked by the simultaneous election of our first black president and the enactment of a gay-marriage ban in California, it's in danger of becoming primarily a symbol or a statement, and not a movie at all. (For instance, there is an announced boycott of Cinemark theaters showing the film, because of the chain owner's purported anti-gay politics.) But let's say the simplest things first: This is an affectionately crafted, celebratory biopic about a sweet, shrewd, hard-assed, one-of-a-kind historical figure. And they can just FedEx the Oscar to Sean Penn's house right now, so that we don't have to listen to his acceptance speech.


Filed under: Andrew O'Hehir • Film
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Kim

    The verdict sparked the White Knight Riots and don't think junk food and depression is a reason to take someone elses life over a job. Enter the Twinkie Defense and it's a sad story out of control political realities that resulted in tragedy. Two years later out of prison takes his own life. Do you think the Cinemark theaters refuses to show the movie totally as a result of anti-gay politics ? Or are there other considerations of concern ? Will the movie add further to emotionally fuel the fire causing more violence and riots in the streets in view of California's vote to ban gay marriages ? Interesting movie and if Sean Penn's in it, want to see the movie. The theory of interpretation of our US Constitution and clarity of the 14th Amendment. It'll come back around for another vote and we'll be watching for fair balance of interests and interpretation. How many controversial movies have been made we've all walked out in discussion for perspective ? They call it democracy and the First Amendment don't they ? A boycott of the film ? Get real and Mel played Jesus ! What is the rating of the movie ?

    November 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm |
  2. DJ

    I'm finally happy to see that gay, human, history is being shown to others. Every time i hear that Homosexuals didnt have the struggles that other groups have had, I think to myself: "Self.. (hehe), I wonder if they would still say that if they would have learned things like stonewall. How about the way Two spirits were treated when discovered amongst the native american communities by the white men? would they say the same things about the Torments that hitler and his men reserved especially for homosexuals? When saved by the US, thinking they were finally freed, to be told that the germans had the right to do what they did.." This movie is about a real man, a man who struggled against the grains of society and made it. only to be stripped of his life at the end by ignorance.

    I would like to say thank you for this small window on the stone wall.

    November 29, 2008 at 2:26 pm |
  3. Natalie

    I'm a little too young to know about the Harvey Milk assasination of 1978. I am happily a member of Generation X, or Y....whatever people are labeling us 80s babies now-a-days. Well, I only have one remote question that has been plaguing me since my sociology professor (who is living as a homosexual) placed the notion in my head: Why is the "struggle" for Gay Civil Rights often (if not always) equated with Black Civil Rights?

    Linking the two seems to be a convient strategy for the group; an easy way to perscute–or guilt trip–those who do not share the same ideals.

    November 29, 2008 at 10:46 am |