One of the most unsettling things, for me, about watching Milk, was the contemplation of life if Harvey Milk hadn’t ever existed. And then, on the flipside, how different things may (or may not) be now if he had lived and continued on his path of activism.
Of course, both paths are impossible to imagine or predict, and it does no good to even try, but that’s how my brain works. But one thing the film seems to make clear is that Milk was a charismatic man, a true leader, in every sense of the word, who seemingly had no problem getting people on his side and to his cause. People forget that San Francisco was a fairly conservative, working class, Catholic town before Milk arrived on the scene and had more to do with making it the emblem of everything liberal in the United States (with conservative politicians even accusing liberal politicians of having “San Francisco values”). It’s hard to say, at least for me, how much influence Harvey Milk really had outside of SF in convincing gay people to come out of the closet and live openly, which, as he stated, was the only path to acceptance.
What the film version didn’t do incredibly well for me (and maybe this would be kind of impossible) is explore that precarious balance of “never blending in,” and retaining one’s privacy. Milk, at least according to the film, claims that privacy must be sacrificed in order to make any achievements for the cause and make gay people less scary to straight America. I totally agree with the sentiment, but also understand the risks and fears associated with coming out.
Not everyone has a support network in their lives, and not everyone lives in a liberal haven of gay-happy acceptance, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Portland, Miami, Austin, or Chicago. It’s easy to live openly in these places, but what about places where coming out to your neighbors, employers, or even family, is dangerous and could even get you killed?
It’s a dichotomy the gay world has lived with for decades, and will probably live with for many more. How does one live in the open, with dignity and courage, when doing so is a daily landmine? It’s easy to say they should pack up and leave for more liberal shores, but thank God some young gay people have the courage, fortitude and desire to stay behind. I mentioned to someone the other day that just because I grew up in Arkansas doesn’t mean I was self-loathing enough to stay there, but lately more and more of myself feels like gays all up and down the coasts should move back to their south and midwest hometowns and take over. I’m sure there are enough of us.
Milk is an imperfect but inspiring film. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re never doing enough. I have deliberately avoided reading any reviews, as I wanted to go into it as unbiased as possible. I had a feeling it would be a movie I would either adore or have serious problems with. I’m leaning much more to the adored side, as most of my problems with the film are silly things that ultimately don’t really matter (like Diego Luna, for instance, in what is surely the year’s most embarassing performance). It’s inspired a lot of thought in me, not just about what more I can do, but about how much bravery and fortitude it took to be Harvey Milk, especially back then! It’s easy for my generation to forget about how far we’ve come as a society even in 30 years (hell, even in the last 15 years!), and the sacrifices the previous generation had to make not just for themselves, but for me. Luckily, we have the luxury of choosing either our privacy, or to “never blend in,” but in many ways, this wasn’t a choice a generation ago. A generation, which, ironically, had a lot more to lose than we do today. They had to be visible or die.
There are going to be setbacks for many years and decades to come, but it seems obvious now that time is clearly on our side. That wasn’t so back in the 1970’s, and as desperate as things sometimes feel now, I can’t even imagine how they felt back then. If nothing else, Milk is a wonderful time capsule, a not so gentle reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go. It’s encouragement to never give up, never relax, never stop being anything less than militant, and can help provide the strength to never blend in. Even when doing so is so much easier. It’s a movie as a cheerleader, and sometimes, that’s what’s you really need.