MILK: A Pop Theology Dialogue

MILK: A Pop Theology Dialogue December 9, 2008

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay and I saw Gus Van Sant’s new film, MILK, last week.  It tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in the United States.  We thought we would provide another dialogue review like we did with another interesting biopic this year, W..  Hope you enjoy.

Ryan: So two really good biopics have come out this Fall, both about very influential and controversial American political figures.  When we reviewed W., we talked quite a bit about the religious and spiritual motivation that spurned Bush in his pursuit of the White House.  Watching MILK, a biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to political office in America, one could quickly notice the lack of a religious or spiritual presence in the film, save Anita Bryant’s apocalyptic rants against homosexuality and bestiality!  We see, from the opening credits and the historical footage and photos of gay men being rounded up by the police and arrested, the socio-historical location from which Milk emerged.  We learn quickly that he is motivated, as a gay man, by personal experience to fight for the rights of not only the members of his community, but all marginalized citizens as well.  Now while I don’t want to totally separate the two, because they are not always separate, it seems like we have drastically different motivating factor(s) at work here between religious beliefs and personal experience.  Milk’s personal experience as a gay man made him a much more effective political leader, don’t you think?  On the other hand, we have Bush who tries to spread freedom and democracy all over the world, speaking FOR the oppressed in the process, when he’s never really had an experience of oppression that could have informed his worldview.

Richard: There’s no question who was more effective from a liberation theology point of view. There was a reason Jesus said the poor in spirit were blessed. There’s a spiritual wisdom that can come out of oppression that isn’t based on religion, although, as with Harvey’s second boyfriend, it can just as easily lead to self-destruction. The sense of family created around Harvey also brought to mind Matthew 12:49, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Family is a spiritual paradigm in the Gospels, not a biological one, and certainly not restricted to the “union of one man and one woman.”

As for secularism in the gay community, I have to think of Harvey’s statement that it’s not that he doesn’t like cops, it’s that the cops don’t like him. Religious institutions have oppressed gay people nearly endlessly (See: “8, Proposition — Mormon, Evangelical, and Catholic Church”), and I’m guessing the gay men and women that flocked to San Francisco in the 70’s would have been the ones that felt braver in casting off traditional religious and family ties. But religious activists have also been a part of the gay liberation movement since the beginning. Metropolitan Community Church, which ministers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, was founded in California in 1968 (the San Francisco congregation in 1970) and played an important role in opposing the Briggs Initiative. And one of the first organizations that brought together “mainstream” community leaders and members of the gay community in San Francisco was the Council on the Church and the Homosexual, starting in 1964. (History wonks, click here: http://www.lgbtran.org/Exhibits/CRH/Exhibit.aspx)

As a gay man, it’s hard for me even to begin sort out my feelings about MILK. And maybe that’s an important place to start. For LGBT viewers, Harvey Milk’s story was never just another movie; it had to work as a political manifesto, a community history, and a tribute to the humanity of its subject. And I have to say it’s a success on all fronts. The film captures the extremely high personal stakes that come with gay rights activism. As Harvey says to Dan White, this isn’t just an “issue,” this is our lives. What the supporters of Prop 8 (and Prop 6 in the film) didn’t realize is that they’re trying to destroy something you just can’t kill. Once the fire in a community is lit for liberation, it doesn’t go out. From that point on, if you’re opposed, you’re just negotiating the terms of surrender. I left the theater with a sense of gratitude for Harvey and the other courageous activists that lit that fire. It’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen to where I can look at characters on the screen and say my life is better because they lived.
One objection: could we pass some kind of a law that forbids naming biopics with the first or last name of the major character? MILK, Ray, Ali, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Capote, etc. etc. Considering these films usually take years in development haggling over who is to play the historic figure (Robin Williams was considered for this role — thank God they waited) you’d think someone could take the time to come up with a title. Not only that, the word “Milk” also doubles as the name of a dairy product, leading to links like the one on Slate.com: “Fresh ‘Milk.'”

What were your thoughts on the film? Best biopic since Malcolm X?

Ryan: Great points Richard.  Your comments on the Gospels’ implications for family are especially important.  I’m not even going to dignify the Robin Williams rumor with a discussion.

Best biopic since X?  I think so.  Certainly one of the best.  MILK will still be up there even when we finally get an MLK biopic.

I’m probably stealing this from hundreds of other reviewers, but we’ve both touched on it already.  MILK does this incredible job of blending the personal and the political/public, where so many other biopics fail or fall short.  As an aside, I thought this was one of the great strengths of W. as well.  For MILK, this is again a testament to both the director, Gus Van Sant, and the Oscar front runner for best actor, in my opinion, Sean Penn.  But the supporting cast strengthened this theme as well, with James Franco turning in a fantastic performance as a somewhat jilted partner.  Emile Hirsch is great as well playing a tortured soul of a kind.  Here, we have a young, brash kid who has certainly embraced his sexuality in his move to San Francisco, but still isn’t quite sure where he fits in politically or professionally.  Harvey sees something in him and brings him into the political machine.  I imagine that Harvey had and continues to have this kind of effect on people across the country, and so will MILK.  I am torn in regards to Diego Luna, who I normally enjoy in films.  He plays yet another jilted partner who cannot handle the sense of exclusion that he feels from Harvey’s political success, commitments, and popularity.  I think James Franco overshadows Luna in this type of character, but of course, it is important for audiences to see that some partners have reacted in quite different, severe ways.  This helped strengthen, as you put it, the idea that this is not just about an “issue.”

I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on that as well.  I think Van Sant does a great job of diffusing so much tension and expectation in MILK by opening the scene with (spoiler everyone!) the news footage of Harvey’s assassination.  We no longer wait for the gunshot and, as such, are more focused on the life at hand, rather than its eventual death.  Then, the life on screen forces us to see that Harvey’s political career was never about an issue, it was about the lives and rights of millions of people across the country, but first and foremost for him, gay rights.

Watching films like this…films about such controversial, “liberal,” or progressive leaders…I feel like I have two simultaneous viewings.  I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but I sometimes watch these films with an eye towards how people who are a bit more conservative than me might see the film.  First, I think we could obviously agree that people who believe homosexuality is a choice, a sin, or just plain wrong will not like this film.  Even though it is, in my opinion, extremely restrained in its physical sexuality, I think some viewers will still be hung up on that.  For those who are on the fence, I believe this film will work wonders in shaping their thought process.

Now there’s one character that I haven’t mentioned.  Josh Brolin as Dan White.  Brolin as given two fantastic performances in these two recent biopics that we have discussed.  He’s on something of a cinematic roll as of late.  His performance is fantastic, but I wonder if Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black couldn’t have taken a few more chances with this character.  In the film, a drunken White says, “Dan White’s got an issue!”  Yet we never get a clear picture of what this issue is.  Is he a closet homosexual?  Does he suffer from unresolved family issues similar to W.‘s?  This film is not entitled WHITE, but something extra in this regard might have strengthened the film because it would have strengthened the presentation of the opposition that Harvey fought to overcome by taking Dan White more seriously than Anita Bryant.

Richard: I agree that Penn has to be in the lead for Best Actor. After Prop 8, I can see the Hollywood community wanting to reward this film in a major way. But whatever the political issues, this role really expanded Sean Penn’s range. You don’t usually hear terms like “charming,” “witty,” or “flirtatious” to describe a Sean Penn performance — more like “brooding,” “intense,” and “barely-contained rage.”

You’re right that Brolin (and Van Sant) did a good job of complexifying Dan White. It would have been easy simply to cast him as the “villain,” but the reality was he represented a lot of people who felt profoundly threatened by the social upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s, that Harvey Milk’s election represented.  I don’t think it was necessary to explain his actions, as Harvey Milk is portrayed as saying in the film, that White was a closeted gay man. As I suggested in my review of Mad Men, the expectations placed on heterosexual men in an unquestioned patriarchy could be soul-destroying.

What was impressive about the film was its ability to portray the epic scope of the history and still retain an experimental indie feel. I’m thinking of the shot framed as a reflection in the whistle dropped by the gay bashing victim, and the improvisational antics of the supporting characters that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in one of Van Sant’s early films like My Own Private Idaho. Like Spike Lee with Malcolm X, Van Sant didn’t use the biopic as an excuse to stop innovating.

The performance I thought best captured the spirit of the film’s era was Emile Hirsch. There’s an intensity and innocence in his face that I’ve seen in historical photos of the early gay rights movement, like, “Are we really doing this? Are we marching on city hall? I think we are.” The bless God/curse God moment for me was knowing that things only got worse for the community after Milk’s death — about a third to half of the young men portrayed in the film would have died from AIDS during the next 15 years. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but sometimes a lot of people die in the process.

MILK (128 mins.) is rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence and is currently in theaters.

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