Released this week on MUBI is Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, based on the life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Kate Soloman looks at the challenges in bringing a complex story to life

In every story, there is a hero and there is a villain. Sometimes the villain is born evil, sometimes they become evil over time. Sometimes the hero becomes the villain and the villain becomes the hero. Sometimes the villain was never really evil at all.

To most people, gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk was the hero of his own story, but to others he was the villain; his triumphs were seen as setbacks and his murder as the ultimate victory.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that in 1978, gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk was shot dead at his office where he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the USA. His assassin was a disgruntled political rival who also shot and killed Mayor George Moscone.

With eerie foresight, Milk recorded his own oral history shortly before he was killed, a voiceover that forms the backbone of Milk, the 2008 biopic of his life directed by Gus Van Sant.

Harvey had so many strange sides; he was a very lively character. There wasn't anything that we could be reverential about to the point of being stiff Gus Van Sant

When Van Sant began talks to make the film, Robin Williams was attached to play the title role, and Van Sant had reservations about making such an overtly political film. He thought that if the movie was swamped with politics, people would get bored and switch off. He wanted to tell the story of Harvey Milk the man, not Harvey Milk the crusader, and was willing to fictionalise some of his story to do it.

But although Milk was 40 before he began campaigning for office, it soon became clear to scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black that it was impossible to explain Harvey Milk without the context of his political career. To properly tell the story of Milk’s life and death in 1970s San Francisco, they would have to go deep into the gay rights movement he spearheaded.

To make a successful biopic, authenticity has to be the name of the game. Working with LGBT activist Cleve Jones, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, Lance Black travelled to San Francisco every weekend for two years to interview as many people who’d known the real Harvey Milk as possible.

“I was definitely nervous about whether or not Harvey would be portrayed correctly,” said Gus Van Sant when the film came out. “Harvey had so many strange sides; he was a very lively character. There wasn't anything that we could be reverential about to the point of being stiff.”

Shout it out: Milk reveals a man who embodied the ideal of courage in the face of adversity Credit: Rex Features/Collection/REX Shutterstock

Milk makes heavy use of archive footage from the time, with the majority of the film shot on location in San Francisco. The team even went so far as to recreate Milk’s Castro Camera store as near-perfectly as possible, using photos and friends’ memories. The shop was the epicentre of the city’s gay community as well as being Milk’s campaign HQ and it was recreated so accurately that some of the film crew reported seeing a ghost they took to be Harvey Milk himself stopping by.

Milk was released in the US just as California was voting on Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment intended to stop same-sex marriage from being recognised in California. The film’s premiere in San Francisco was besieged by campaigners fighting the proposition. Although it passed in 2008, Proposal 8 was later appealed and found unconstitutional and, in 2013, same-sex marriage was legalised again.  

In Britain in 2015, we too are at a political turning point. With the general election taking place, many of the marginalised people that Harvey Milk represented are unsure that the politicians gaining a foothold in the UK are representing them properly. The question as to what makes a good political leader – and what we should do when we feel ignored or mistreated by the establishment – is as pertinent as it has ever been.

Milk is the perfect film for such times – not because it offers the answers to such questions, but rather for its portrait of a man who embodied the ideal of courage in the face of adversity.

As Milk himself said, “You have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the ‘usses’, the ‘usses’ will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”

The question of who the true villain is in Milk becomes obvious as you watch the film. It’s not the celebrated yet flawed Harvey Milk. It’s not his assassin, who is portrayed surprisingly sympathetically. It’s not even the people campaigning to have gay teachers fired and gay teenagers “cured”. The villain is prejudice.

Somewhere along the way, Robin Williams dropped out and Sean Penn signed on, eventually winning an Oscar for his warm, funny portrayal of a man who gave his life to fight that villain of prejudice; a hard and dangerous fight; a fight that continues to this day.

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