Harvey Milk: Beyond the Biopic

by Matt Zakosek on March 12, 2009

Last month, 36 million people watched as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and actor Sean Penn made impassioned pleas for gay rights at the 81st Annual Academy Awards. Now Penn is using his newfound clout in the gay community to lobby for California’s recognition of May 22 as “Harvey Milk Day.” Though the thought is nice, one has to wonder how Black feels about the (some may say opportunistic) activism. As he writes in the introduction to Milk: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk, newly issued by Newmarket Press: “To me, the answers are clear. GLBT leaders today have been asking straight allies to stand up for the gay community instead of encouraging gay and lesbian people to proudly represent themselves. The movement has become closeted again. The movement has lost the message of Harvey Milk.”


As the movement recovers from the blow of Proposition 8, it’s tempting to resort to whatever tactics we have at our disposal, and everyone knows that movie stars garner results (or at least press). But Black — or is it Milk? — is right. The community needs to stand up for itself. Part of standing up involves preserving our history, and this collection of photos would be an excellent addition to any archive of the GLBT struggle.

The Early Years

Another threat of the post-Prop 8 landscape is the urge to turn Milk into a martyr, by focusing solely on his late-in-life activism. Black’s screenplay, by beginning in 1972, neatly sidesteps the man’s life until that point, though a reference is made to his prior accomplishments (“Forty years old and I haven’t done a thing that I’m proud of,” Penn grumbles). Newmarket’s pictorial history takes pains not to fall into this same trap.

From Milk’s privileged East Coast childhood to his stint in the Navy, from the heady early days of San Francisco’s Castro district to his three failed bids for public office, from his first successful campaign to his tragic assassination — each phase is captured in gorgeous, mostly black-and-white photographs.

The contrast can be stunning. Milk, in crisp Navy uniform on page 24, morphs into full-on Furry Freak Brothers mode by page 28. And an early love affair with Joe Campbell, who would later join Andy Warhol’s entourage, inspires a fanciful love letter that seems at odds with Milk’s take-no-prisoners political persona.

But the details can tease even more than they tell. The sole picture of Milk with his older brother, Robert, leaves one wishing for more information about his biological family—how they reacted to his fame, how they reconciled Milk the politician with the quiet boy they once knew. Undoubtedly Milk’s San Francisco circle played the most integral role in his life, yet when Harvey first floats the idea for Castro Camera in Milk, it’s described as “a little [shop], just like Morris and Minnie Milk[’s] of Woodmere, New York.” Though miles away, both geographically and, one presumes, ideologically, Milk’s parents remained a key influence. So who were they?

One particularly scintillating tidbit from the timeline that concludes the book cites 1970 as the year Milk is fired from his job in finance for “publicly burning his BankAmericard.” Where’s the photograph of that?

“It’s Time for the People!”

If Milk the film ends just moments after the man’s assassination — culminating with that night’s candlelight vigil and some rote title cards — Milk the book goes a few steps further, dedicating a four-page spread to the White Night Riots. We also get a deeper insight into Milk’s killer, Dan White, the man who would infamously invoke “the Twinkie defense” in his plea for manslaughter.

“It’s Time for the People!” Dan White’s campaign materials shriek, next to a hilariously butch shot of the candidate with a suit jacket slung over his shoulder. It’s doubtful that White, the self-professed family man, made it to see the controversial Midnight Cowboy, but it could have taught him a valuable lesson. At this point in history, those who embraced the most masculine of stereotypes were often seeking the company of other manly men, not necessarily celebrating them. In White’s uncertain expression are the wounded words of Jon Voight’s Joe Buck to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo: “John Wayne! Are you tryin’ to tell me he’s a fag?”

Though Black’s script suggests that White was deeply closeted, the point seems debatable. While White was surely questioning some masculine tropes, just like the rest of the culture (the Village People formed the same year he was elected city supervisor), more likely he was really, really pissed that Milk the “degenerate” was garnering favor over White the upright citizen. A political leaflet, included here with the rest of his campaign materials, reads like a desperate bid for respectability. White rattles off his ties to the community with the zeal of an overachieving Eagle Scout. (How does attending St. Elizabeth’s Grammar School prepare one for the responsibilities of city supervisor, anyway?) This is a man whose accomplishments would never live up to his own expectations.

What a joy it is, then, to see some of Harvey’s flyers. Page 93, on which an anti-Briggs Initiative missive is reproduced in its entirety, is particularly eye-catching. Why didn’t some enterprising “No on 8” activist reprint the pamphlet, change the “6” to an “8,” and slap it on every door from Sacramento to San Diego on the night of November 3, 2008?

Voices of Dissent

The rest of the text, comprised mostly of quotes from Milk’s associates, is scrupulously fair. While the book is undoubtedly a celebration of the gay rights, the interviewees are careful to make room for dissenting voices. “As we began moving over the hill from the Haight-Ashbury into the Castro, playgrounds became cruisy at night,” Cleve Jones recalls. “For a neighborhood that had recently been Irish-Catholic to suddenly be full of half-naked men smoking pot all over the place at 4 a.m. was very jarring for them.” The best quotes, like this one, are so vivid they are practically images themselves.

Less effective is the book’s second half, a straightforward account of the making of Gus van Sant’s award-winning film. While screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s introduction is heartfelt and affecting, his recreation of history simply isn’t as interesting as history itself. That said, there are some wonderful stills from the film, including a two-page spread of star Sean Penn in short-shorts, gazing adoringly at on-screen lover James Franco. And an uncanny photographic comparison of the actors to their real-life counterparts proves just how thoughtfully they were cast.

Though the book bears his name, it’s not just about Harvey or his life. As Armistead Maupin writes in his moving (if dry) foreword, the gay-rights movement “really was about us: the clerk at Macy’s, the dyke cop on Valencia, that old tranny singing torch songs in the Tenderloin.” Indeed: The older friend who gave me this book recognized his former milkman in one of the group shots on Castro Street. This attractive coffee-table book is an introduction to these ordinary people as well as to the groundbreaking politician who gave them their voice.

Best of all, though Penn’s handsome visage may grace its cover, it needs no heterosexual Hollywood leading man to recommend it.

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