Great review and thoughtful Analysis of Milk by Mr Slate Honey. Van Sant is giving a Q&A tonight at MOMA- hopefully I’ll get tickets and be able to report back tomorrow.-R
It seems everybody and their gay dads saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk as part of the Thanksgiving routine this year. I was warned to go equipped with tissues and to be ready for problematic portrayals of the few characters of color in the film. (Thanks lover, for the forewarning by the way.) I went prepared with a dewey heart and my critical lenses on.
I have been a committed Sean Penn fan ever since I saw Dead Man Walking when I was a little mister. And I got on the Gus Van Sant train a bit late but his recent films Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park have served my grungy emo-homo skater-boy obsession very well.
Cinematographer Harris Savides and Van Sant make a great visionary team. They previously worked together on Elephant, a film with a very precise, clean cinema verité style that transforms violence into real-time horror and renders its viewers innocent witnesses. In Milk, Savides and Van Sant play with perspective, creating layers of consciousness for Penn’s character. Switching perspective and cinematic style, and weaving archival footage into the film, Savides and Van Sant reveal a determined, emotional man at the center of a violent socio-political setting. A particularly lush scene that is classic Van Sant perspective comes early on in the film. Harvey and Scott (played by James Franco) fall in love in a soft-focus dreamscape of close movement, shot all in extreme close-ups set to the soundtrack of their tender conversation. Gorgeousness.
Overall, Milk is very historically accurate. Activist Cleve Jones and friend of Milk’s was on-set during production and connected Van Sant with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who had long been preparing a manuscript. Milk serves as a good personal portrait counterpart to the 1985 documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein. I had the feeling watching MILK that I could trust the filmmaker team’s attention to detail and the solid sense of collaboration gave the narrative a documentary quality.
So the accuracy and detail of the film bring up a pretty big concern on the race-politics front. I was charmed by Sean Penn’s old-school New York accent and faggy gestures, seduced by James Franco’s flirty eyes and mini handlebar moustache and increasingly worried as Josh Brolin’s character’s passive aggressive repression began to seep out. And the constant influx of characters served well as a distraction from the tragic and narrow development of the few characters of color.
A member of Milk’s activist dream team includes an Asian man who is only referred to as Lotus Blossom despite his many appearances. Random folks of color magically appear in the crowd every time Milk gets a further push forward in the political machine. During an acceptance speech near the climax of the film, a black woman with a classic 70s look complete with afro smiles enthusiastically behind Harvey. She promptly disappears behind a shower of balloons as soon as Harvey wraps up his speech.
Leaving the theatre, my mom suggested that the race politics of the film merely mirrored the San Francisco scene in the 1970s. There just weren’t that many people of color, she argued. And there were barely any women in the film, she added. Historical accuracy? (And, I might add, how much has the San Francisco gay scene departed from a mostly white gay male playground thirty years later?)
The seldom appearance of people of color is one thing. I suppose you can reason this with some argument about accuracy. What is more troubling is the passiveness of the characters of color. Black and Asian extras dot the activist scenes, always with their thumbs in the air and big smiles. Lotus Blossom doesn’t seem to wince at his nickname. And finally, Jack, the one Latino character that makes it on-screen for more than thirty seconds is portrayed as an irrational, mentally unstable, co-dependent, infantile wifey. Jack’s tragedy becomes expected and you can almost hear the characters whispering under their breath “She brought it on herself.” This is fodder for post-colonial theory.
So my warnings were well-heeded. In the end, I cried like a baby, just as hard as I cried when I watched ‘The Life and Times of Harvey Milk’. I left the theatre thinking about the fearless work of an older generation of queer activists that laid some ground for young folks to make demands relevant to what it means to be queer and fight for rights today. I also left thinking about how race politics have systematically been swept under the rug by a white gay and lesbian rights movement in the 70s. I thought about what work that has left contemporary queer activists of color. And how truly far-thinking activists never get comfortable and only keep pushing and questioning. Finally, making my way out of the city back to Brooklyn, I meditated on queer love as freedom, queer survival as civil rights, and a beautiful fearlessness that comes naturally to us.